Japan intends to begin negotiations with the US shortly to ease its restrictions on US beef imports in the wake of an international animal health organization’s recent decision to allow exports of US beef irrespective of cattle age, Japanese government sources said, according to Kyodo News.

Japanese Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi will likely meet US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in Germany next week to confirm the launch of negotiations between experts from the two countries, possibly in July, the sources said on condition of anonymity in Kyodo’s report.

Japan currently limits US beef imports to those from cattle aged 20 months or less as a result of the first US case of mad-cow disease, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, found in December 2003.

The World Organization for Animal Health, which is known as the OIE and deals with safety standards for preventing BSE, decided in May to allow the US to exports beef regardless of cattle age, Kyodo said.

Also in May, Japanese government inspectors inspected US meat-processing plants for beef exports to Japan and reportedly found no safety problems, Kyodo reported.

If Japan concludes it is necessary to change its import restrictions on US beef based on discussions by Japanese and US experts, the agricultural ministry and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will ask the Food Safety Commission, an independent panel of experts who assess the risk of food items, to recommend specific changes, Kyodo said. (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)