Japan was scheduled to hold the last of its public hearings on US beef safety on Wednesday before making a formal decision on whether to reopen the once-lucrative Japanese market to American beef.
Japan's agriculture and health ministries have been holding hearings in major cities across the country since June 1 to explain progress made in talks between the two countries on beef imports, said Agriculture Ministry official Atsushi Furukawa. The tenth and final hearing takes place in Tokyo, he said.
US beef shipments have been suspended since January over concerns about mad cow disease. Japanese and US officials wrapped up negotiations in mid-May, but did not set a timetable for the resumption of the beef trade.
The US has pushed to resume exports by the end of June, but Japanese officials said public meetings must be held first. They also asked for more information on US meatpacking plants that export the beef.
Tokyo first closed its door to US beef in December 2003 after the first discovery of mad cow disease in the American herd. That ban was eased in December 2005 to allow the import of meat from cows 20 months old or younger, thought to be less at risk from the disease.
But in January, Japanese customs officials found spine bones _ which Tokyo considers at risk for the disease _ in a shipment of American veal, and the market was closed again.
Japan was once the most lucrative overseas market for US beef, buying about US $1.4 billion worth in 2003.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle. Eating contaminated meat products has been linked to the rare but fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.