Japan says it is ending a two-year ban on U.S. and Canadian beef imports. The top U.S. agriculture official urged other Asian countries, that banned U.S. beef because of fears of mad cow disease to reopen their markets.

Japan and other Asian countries suspended U.S. and Canadian beef imports in 2003 after the discovery of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, in North America. Humans can contract a form of the deadly brain-wasting disease from eating infected meat.

On Monday, Japan said it would reopen its market to North American beef but only to meat from cows 20 months old and younger, which are believed to be less likely to be exposed to the disease. Tokyo also wants body parts such as brain and spinal cords that can carry the disease to be removed before importation.

While in Hong Kong Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns welcomed Japan's decision. He urged other Asian markets, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore - which also banned U.S. beef - to follow Tokyo's lead.

"Resuming beef trade with Japan is great news for American producers and Japanese consumers as well as an important step toward normalized trade based on scientifically sound and internationally recognized standards," said Mike Johanns.

The two-year ban blocked U.S. producers from a market worth a $1.5 billion. Negotiations between the two sides to resume the beef trade have been protracted, and at times heated, with Japan insisting on limiting imports to young cows and questioning U.S. safety inspections.

Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, Japan's deputy agriculture minister, says Japan is sending inspectors to the North America to ensure compliance with the guidelines.

"The primary responsibility for the observance of rules rests with the U.S. exporting program but we also think it is extremely important for Japanese authorities to carry out their own checks directly in the U.S.A," said Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi.

Japan also has had cases of BSE and the United States banned Japanese beef imports in 2001. On Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Johanns said that ban will be lifted.

It is not clear whether the easing of the ban would encourage Japanese consumers to start buying North American beef again. A recent poll by Kyodo News in Japan showed some three quarters of respondents saying they would be unwilling to buy U.S. beef.