According to Bloomberg news reports, Japan is preparing to ease restrictions on U.S. beef imports in the wake of a drop in domestic cattle production after the country's earthquake-related nuclear disasters.

Currently, Japan restricts beef imports to cattle aged 20 months or younger, a policy that has been in place since the occurance of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003. Two ministry officials who declined to be named said that the Japanese government is considering raising the age limit to 30 months,

“We have exchanged opinions on the issue through expert- level talks between the two governments, and we hope it will be resolved accordingly,” Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano told reporters in Tokyo today, declining to provide a timeframe for a decision.

Prior to the 2003 export ban and subsequent age restrictions, Japan had been the largest buyer of U.S. beef. In order to the age limit to be raised, the country's Food Safety Commission must confirm that the change will not increase human health risks. A decade-long study by the Japanese government showed that most cases of BSE were found in cattle older than 30 months.

If Japan relaxes the age limit, U.S. shipments will likely return to pre-ban levels, said Susumu Harada, senior director at the Tokyo office of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

“The change would help normalize beef trade as U.S. products for overseas shipments are mostly from cattle aged up to 24 months,” Harada said in a telephone interview.

Source: Bloomberg, BusinessWeek