Japan has agreed to resume U.S. beef imports, which had been suspended due to concerns about mad cow disease.
Tokyo agreed to lift the ban on the condition that inspections of U.S. meat processing plants certified to ship beef to Japan do not reveal any problems.
Officials of Japan's Agriculture Ministry made the announcement after concluding talks with their U.S. counterparts via video links. The talks ended almost six months of negotiations.
Greg Hanes is Japan director of the U.S. Meat Export Federation in Tokyo. He says the Japanese government took a cautious approach because of strong concerns of Japanese consumers about the safety of U.S. beef.
He expects imports to resume soon after Japanese officials inspect meatpacking facilities in the United States next month.
"The plants should be in pretty good shape so I think they would not have many findings, if so they would be minor issues that would not be food-safety related anyway, so just addressing those and then hopefully imports will resume as soon as possible," he said.
The agreement removes a main point of friction between Tokyo and its closest ally before Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi travels to Washington next week to meet with President Bush.
Japan used to be the top importer of U.S. beef, buying about $1.4 billion worth in 2003.
But Tokyo suspended the import of U.S. beef in December 2003, after the United States discovered its first case of mad cow disease.
Late last year, Japan lifted the ban on the condition that the U.S. only ships beef from cattle aged 20 months or less and that imports exclude cattle parts that could carry the disease, including brains, bone marrow, and spinal tissue.
Tokyo halted imports again only one-month later, after finding prohibited spinal material in a U.S. shipment of veal.