WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. senator on Wednesday expressed hope that Japan would ease longstanding restrictions on imports of U.S. beef following reports that a Japanese government advisory panel was recommending that action.
"I am encouraged by the steps taken today by the Japanese government," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said in a statement. "We're headed in the right direction."
Japan, which was once the largest importer of U.S. beef, and a number of other countries banned imports from the United States in 2003 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy was first discovered in the U.S. cattle herd.
Japan re-opened its market to American beef in 2005, but only from cattle under 21 months in age since older cattle are considered higher risk for the so-called "mad cow" disease.
The United States, with support from the World Organization for Animal Health, says all U.S. beef is safe and has pressed Japan to drop remaining age restrictions.
The Kyodo news agency reported earlier on Wednesday that a Japanese panel of experts backed the idea of raising the age restriction to 30 months, setting the stage for the Japanese government to take that step in early 2013.
That would put it in line with some other countries that have eased mad cow restrictions on U.S. beef.
Kyodo said the panel was expected to shortly issue a draft report on its recommendations, which would be subject to public comments before a final version is sent to the Japanese the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Even with the current curbs, Japan is the third-largest export market for U.S. beef after Mexico and Canada.
But Baucus, a Montana Democrat whose committee has jurisdiction over trade, has urged Tokyo to do more to open its market to U.S. beef, particularly if it wants to join talks with the United States on a regional free trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"I had very constructive meetings in Tokyo last month and am confident we will continue to strengthen our trade ties with Japan," Baucus said.
Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen and Bob Burgdorfer