Japan's agricultural minister expressed concerns Tuesday about possible U.S. reprisals after Tokyo deferred a decision on lifting its 20-month ban on American beef imports, and he urged closer cooperation between the two countries to resume the trade.
"I'm afraid U.S. Congress will get very tough on (the beef issue) and we have to watch the developments," Agricultural Minister Mineichi Iwanaga said.
"It is important for both countries to continue efforts so Japan and the United States can simultaneously resume two-way beef trade," he said.
Japan stopped importing beef products from the United States after the first case of mad cow was found there in December 2003. Washington has been pushing for Japan to quickly resume imports, but Tokyo says it needs to follow its agencies' procedures before giving a green light.
The United States has also banned beef imports from countries with confirmed cases of mad cow disease, including Japan. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved legislation that will keep top-quality Kobe beef off U.S. menus.
Japan's Food Safety Commission said Monday it needed more time to evaluate U.S. safeguards before deciding whether to resume imports of American beef. The commission gave no timetable for its final report.
Before the ban, Japan was the most lucrative market for American beef. Some U.S. officials have threatened sanctions unless Tokyo resumes imports of beef from younger cows.
An unofficial draft report published on the Food Safety Commission's Web site says the safety of American beef cannot be ensured under U.S. safeguards alone and recommends restricting imports to meat from cattle proven to be younger than 21 months.
Panel members will discuss the draft report at their next meeting in about two weeks, the AP reports.