(AP) Japan is making final preparations to approve a partial resumption of U.S. beef imports, which were banned over fears about mad cow disease, officials said Friday.
Kyodo News agency said Japan will officially approve an import resumption next week, but Agriculture Ministry official Yoshihiro Kawada said the timing of an approval cannot be predicted.
"We're aiming to get the process going as quickly as possible," Kawada said.
Japan lifted the ban late last year, but then re-imposed it in January after inspectors found a shipment containing banned beef parts.
Tokyo is currently in the final stages of lifting the ban, with Japanese inspectors returning home Sunday after a monthlong monitoring mission of U.S. meat processing plants _ a condition Japan requested in June when it agreed in principle to resume imports.
Japanese experts visited 35 U.S. beef processing plants to see if they comply with safeguard measures exclusively added for their exports to Japan.
The team will compile a report from the inspections, and the government will approve the facilities considered adequately prepared, Kawada said. Any facility with problems will be asked to take measures for improvement and be re-evaluated.
The ministry is holding public hearings in Tokyo and Osaka on July 28 to explain consumers the outcome of the inspection tour before endorsing an import resumption.
Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa told reporters earlier Friday that the scaling back of the U.S. Agriculture Department's mad cow testing program announced Thursday "will not directly affect" the government's decision on the resumption of beef imports, ministry spokesman Hideo Kawakami said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced that beginning in late August, it will scale back its testing program for mad cow disease to one-tenth of what it has been since the discovery of an infected cow in the U.S.
The ministry will make its decision based on a risk assessment, not out of political or diplomatic concerns, Kawakami added.
Japan was a huge consumer of U.S. beef before 2003, when it first imposed an import ban over concerns about possible mad cow disease. When it lifted the ban in January, it only allowed meat from U.S. cows age 20 months or younger, with spine and all other risky parts removed, among other safeguard measures.
Mad cow disease is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In humans, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.