TOKYO, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The Japanese government is considering lifting restrictions on U.S. beef imports, sources told The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
Import restrictions currently ban U.S. beef from cattle 20 months or older. The change, likely to be announced at a November Japan-United States summit, would change that restriction to cattle under 30 months of age, which includes 95 percent of all U.S. beef products, the newspaper said.
The restrictions, which began in 2003 after an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- commonly called mad-cow disease -- in the United States, also ban products containing bovine bone marrow, vertebrae, brains and spinal cords.
Imports were banned completely until December 2006, when imports were limited to boneless products from cattle 20 months or younger. A shipment of beef containing banned bone discovered in 2006, however, resulted in the restoration of the tighter restrictions.
As a result of the restrictions, 99,000 tons of U.S. beef were imported to Japan in 2010, a drop from 240,000 tons in the fiscal year preceding the outbreak.
"It's very difficult to abolish the restrictions from the viewpoint of food safety," said a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official.
A government official in Tokyo noted about 95 percent of all the cattle slaughtered in the United States for consumption is 30 months old or younger.
"Even if we don't totally abolish restrictions, we believe the U.S. government will understand if we ease age restrictions on beef imports to 30 months or younger," the official said.