TOKYO — Once the largest buyer of American beef before an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) prompted the country to ban imports, Japan is analyzing meat from cattle older than 20 months while the US continues calling to normalize the trade, Bloomberg relays.

Japan’s Food Safety Commission must rule that any change in policy won’t increase human health risks, in order for imports of cattle older than 20 months to resume.

After the US found its first case of BSE in 2003, Japan banned American beef. In 2005, the ban was relaxed to allow meat from young cattle. Companies such as Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc. lose about $1 billion in sales a year because of the restriction, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan buy US beef from cattle younger than 30 months. Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia accept the meat from animals of any age, in line with international guidelines. What’s more, Japan also requires US shippers to remove risk materials, such as the spinal cord.
Beef Shipments

If Japan raises the age limit to 30 months, US beef shipments to the Asian nation may return close to pre-ban levels, said one US Meat Export Federation official.

Last fiscal year Japan imported 475,000 metric tons of beef – 75% was from Australia and 16% was from the US, the agriculture ministry relayed.

In May 2007, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) voted to give the US its “controlled-risk” rating for BSE. The designation means controls are effective, and meat from U.S. cattle of any age can be safely traded. The OIE standards are used to settle trade disputes at the World Trade Organization.

Last month, Japan and the US held their first working-level meeting in three years, based on an agreement reached in April to resume beef talks.

USMEF said Japan was the third-largest destination for US beef last year, at $470 million, up from $383 million in 2008.