The announcement that slaughtered cattle 20 months or younger need not be screened for mad cow disease means that the country has taken a significant step forward to lifting the import ban on US beef.
The lucrative billion-dollar market in Japan has been closed to US beef processors following the country's first case of Mad Cow Disease in 2003. The US has been pressuring Japan to resume imports of American beef, but talks have continually stalled over Japan's insistence that the United States follow it practice of a blanket test on all slaughtered cattle, or adopt an equivalent measure.
However, the Japanese prion research committee said this week that it would not require tests on beef from young cows, as animals that young are unlikely to be infected with brain-crippling bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The committee will now submit its recommendations to the Food Safety Commission.
For its part, the US department of agriculture (USDA) remains confident in the safety of the US beef supply. It says that the current ban on specified risk materials from the human food chain provides protection to public health, should another case of BSE ever be detected.
Measures to strengthen public health safeguards in the US include the longstanding ban on imports of live cattle, other ruminants, and most ruminant products from high-risk countries. In addition, non-ambulatory cattle have been banned from the human food chain and air-injection stunning of cattle has been made illegal.
And any animal presented for slaughter that has been sampled for BSE, will be held until the test results have been confirmed negative.
However Japan remains cautious, and it could take months before US beef is back on Japanese shelves. The commission first has to debate whether US beef meets its safety criteria, and only then can the government partially lift the ban and resume imports of beef from young cows.
Japan has screened every cow slaughtered since September 2001, when it found its first mad cow case. Japan has refused to import American beef unless the United States begins inspecting all slaughtered cattle, an option that the US beef industry has said is too expensive.
The global beef industry's worst fear is a rerun of the BSE crisis that gripped the UK in the late 1990s. Domestic sales of beef products declined immediately by 40 per cent following reports of a possible link between BSE and new variant CJD - a human form of BSE - in 1996. Export markets were completely lost.