The US Department of Agriculture has agreed to Japan’s demand that it be allowed to perform new audits of US beef processing plants in return for easier trade conditions.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns, who has repeatedly rejected Japan’s demands for the audits, said Monday night that he has “invited Japan” to begin them as soon as possible.

Johanns has been talking to his Japanese counterparts, Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka in recent days as the White House prepared for a visit from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzu Abe.

In return for permitting the audits, “Japan will discontinue its requirements of inspecting 100% of the boxes of beef shipped from US plants,” Johann said in a prepared statement.

USDA officials have argued strenuously in recent months that Japan needs to do far more than decrease the number of inspections of US beef boxes in order to facilitate increased beef trade. Japan was once the largest importer of US beef until the country implemented a ban in December, 2003, after bovine spongiform encethalopathy, or mad cow disease, was discovered in the US.

Japan eased that ban in July of last year, but the country maintains a choke-hold on the number of US plants that can export as well as a burdensome restriction that prohibits US exporters from shipping any beef derived from cattle older than 21 months at slaughter.

Just three months ago, Johanns stressed in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires that it was unfair for Japan to restrict the number of US plants that can export to just 35.

Those 35 plants were agreed upon by Japan in July, 2006, but Johanns said he believed there was an agreement that would expand that list after six months.

There was no word from Johanns in his Monday night statement on those remaining Japanese restrictions, but he offered some optimism.

“The US expects Japan, as well as all of our trading partners, to implement import requirements for US beef and beef products as soon as possible that are based on science and consistent with international guidelines, including those of the World Organization For Animal Health.” (Dow Jones)