A Japanese government panel has delayed its decision on easing a ban on U.S. beef imports.

The panel had been widely expected to make a recommendation Monday about whether to reopen Japan's market to U.S. imports by the end of the year.

The chairman of the panel said the decision was delayed because some members were unable to attend the meeting.

Japan imposed a ban on U.S. beef and beef products almost two years ago following the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in the state of Washington.

Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, with imports valued at about $1.4 billion in 2003.

Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters.