* Government panel of medical, food experts approve step
* Move to allow imports from cattle older than 20 months
* US beef exports to Japan dropped by 60 pct past decade
* CME live cattle futures traders welcome Japan's steps
By Risa Maeda and Theopolis Waters
TOKYO/CHICAGO, Jan 28 Japan on Monday agreed to
allow U.S., Canadian and French beef imports from cattle up to
30 months old beginning on Feb. 1, relaxing a safeguard against
mad cow disease that has frustrated North American producers for
"This is great news for American ranchers and beef
companies," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a
statement which estimated the move could boost U.S. beef exports
to Japan by "hundreds of millions of dollars" in coming years.
Canada and France also welcomed Tokyo's move, which reflects
ebbing public concern in the world's third-largest economy about
mad cow disease, or bovine bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), almost 20 years after it shook the British beef industry
and then was found in North America in 2003.
Japan's decision, which has been under consideration since
2011, addresses a long-time irritant in U.S.-Japan relations
ahead of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expected visit to
Washington in February. It also clears a major obstacle to
Japan's potential participation in a U.S.-led regional free
trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The news helped boost live cattle futures in trading
on Monday at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. At 10:25 a.m. CST
(1625 GMT) CME spot February live cattle was 2.025 cents
per lb higher, or up 1.6 percent, at 128.325 cents.
But many traders and industry analysts had expected the
move for some time, limiting its immediate price impact, said
Joe Ocrant, president of Oak Investment Group.
JAPAN CURBS ON U.S. BEEF DATE BACK TO 2003
Japan initially banned all U.S. beef imports when the first
case of mad cow disease was found in the United States in 2003,
shutting down the U.S. industry's largest export market and
handing Australian producers a prized new opportunity.
It partially reopened its market in July 2006 to allow
imports of some U.S. beef from animals aged 20 months or younger
produced under a special program for Japan. The age of the cow
is considered a risk factor for mad cow disease.
But U.S. beef exports to Japan totaled only about 120,000
tonnes in 2011, 60 percent below the 2001 level
"This move is an important step forward in paving the way
toward greater export opportunities to one of our largest export
markets," J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's
Beef Association, said in a statement.
Still, over the past decade, the U.S. beef industry has
found new markets for many of the products that Japan
traditionally bought from the United States.
Given that situation, "it's too early to say how quickly
business (to Japan) will increase," said Gary Mickelson, a
spokesman for Tyson Food Inc.
Recession in Japan and a drop in the value in the yen due to
that country's new fiscal policy also could limit any growth in
U.S. exports, said Jim Robb, director of Colorado-based
Livestock Marketing Information Center.
"Furthermore, wholesale beef prices will be record high in
2013 because the U.S. cattle supply is still shrinking, and
those higher prices tend to reduce sales. Still, it could be a
net positive in terms of U.S. beef exports to Japan in the
months ahead," Robb said.
BANS ON FRENCH BEEF, DUTCH VEAL ALSO DROPPED
Canada said it expected the move to double the potential
market value of its beef exports to Japan to about C$150 million
($149 million) annually.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Ottawa could
continue to press for Japan to open its market to the full menu
of Canadian beef products, but in a staged manner.
"It helps us to build and manage the growth of our industry
over the next few years too as we spool up to be ready for these
exciting new opportunities," he told reporters on a call.
Japan also said it would allow beef imports from French
cattle up to 30 months old, dropping a complete ban. Beef from
Dutch cattle less than 12 months old was also cleared for
imports beginning Feb 1, the officials said.
"Japan's decision, which was long awaited, is a recognition
of the guarantees given by the French and European sanitary
systems," France's agriculture, food and trade ministers said in
a joint statement. "It is now up to our producers to seize the
opportunity and organise themselves accordingly."
France exported 94 tonnes of beef for a total of 1 million
euros ($1.35 million) to Japan in 2000, the year before Japan
imposed its embargo.
The Consumers Union of Japan said on Monday that it opposed
the government's move due to concerns over lax checks on animal
feed and product shipments in the United States, adding that
Japan's government had underestimated the risks involved.
A government panel of medical and food experts agreed to
relax the restriction after Health Minister Norihisa Tamura left
the decision to the panel. Tamura has said it would become
effective on Feb. 1 upon the panel's approval.
A health ministry official said Japan and the United States
had agreed to keep talking about further loosening regulations
Mad cow is caused by a protein particle that typically does
not show up in the brain tissue of cattle younger than 30
months. Most cattle are slaughtered between the ages of 18 and
The United States had said Japan's refusal to accept beef
from cattle older than 20 months was more cautious than
necessary, given the United States' designation as a "controlled
risk" country for mad cow by the World Organization for Animal