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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Japan to ease controls on US beef
US beef plant
The US plant checks are expected to start by the end of the year
Japan has agreed a deal that could ease restrictions on US beef imports into the country, Japanese officials said.

Under the agreement Japanese inspectors will visit US meatpacking plants to check standards at the sites.

If they are satisfactory, Japan will accept imports without checking every meat shipment from the factories.

The deal comes days before a Japanese visit to Washington. Japan only began accepting limited beef imports in July following a mad cow scare in 2003.

"The inspections which Japan has been calling for have been accepted. This is big progress because they will confirm safety," said Japan's agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka.

The US added that the deal was an "important first step" in its efforts to expand its beef trade with the country.

Trade hopes

US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns added that Japanese inspectors would begin their checks as soon as possible.

"Once the verification process is complete, Japan will discontinue its requirement of inspecting 100% of the boxes of beef shipped from US plants," he added.

The issue has been a sore point between the two nations - with the US threatening to impose sanctions if tight conditions imposed by Japan were not lifted.

However, Japan has refused to accept any US cattle older than 20 months at the time of slaughter, or any brains, spinal cords or other so-called risky parts.

Before the 2003 ban, Japan had been the main export market for US beef - worth an estimated $1.4bn (700m).

A group of US senators have been lobbying the White House to push for a full resumption of US beef imports when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the country later this week.

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