A high-ranking US trade official indicated that the United States may file a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Japan if disagreements over the best way to prevent the spread of mad cow disease continue, according to a Reuters report.

“We’ll look at whatever options we have to at the appropriate time,” Allen Johnson, the top US agriculture trade negotiator, was quoted as saying when asked by reporters about possible WTO action over Japan’s import ban on US beef.

Johnson also said it was “important that Japan work cooperatively with us to open that market as soon as possible,” according to Reuters.

“We’re monitoring (talks with Japan) to make sure the rules are followed,” Johnson was quoted as saying, so that there would not be any “unnecessary trade barriers.”

Japan, the largest importer of US beef, has banned imports of US beef since the discovery last December of the first case of mad cow disease there and demanded the United States test all slaughtered cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) as a condition for resuming imports.

The US has refused, saying blanket testing is unscientific.

Regarding the report, Hiroyuki Kinoshita, vice minister for international affairs at Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said in Tokyo that the import ban on US beef “is not a matter of trade but a matter of securing food safety.”

The US Agriculture Department said the US plans to begin enhanced surveillance for mad cow disease for 12 to 18 months beginning June 1, testing as many cattle in the high-risk population as possible.

The new surveillance program still falls short of Japan’s request for blanket testing.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Wednesday in Tokyo that Japan’s position on having the US test all slaughtered cattle has not changed.

Asked about a US ban on imports of Japan’s cattle that are all tested for BSE, Koizumi told reporters the issue is also on the agenda in ongoing bilateral negotiations. (Kyodo News)