Tokyo Japan will resist growing U.S. pressure to immediately lift a ban on American beef imports and will take time to make a careful decision on the matter, the top government spokesman said Thursday.
Japan will not compromise on food safety just because Washington has increased its calls for Tokyo to resume the beef trade, said Hiroyuki Hosoda, chief cabinet secretary.
The country halted imports of American beef products in December 2003 after the discovery of the United States' first case of mad cow disease.
Some U.S. lawmakers last month warned of possible sanctions if Japan does not end the ban soon.
However, Japan needs to wait for its Food Safety Commission to rule on whether it is in the interest of consumer health and safety to let U.S. beef into the country before deciding to lift the ban, Hosoda said.
"In terms of international politics, it is true that there is growing pressure (on Japan) and we should take this into account," he said. "But that does not mean we should come to a halfhearted, hasty conclusion."
The government will need to base its decision on scientific evidence, he said.
Hosoda said he would discuss approving a resumption of U.S. beef imports with officials from related government agencies, including the foreign, agricultural and health ministries.
His remarks came amid intensifying pressure from Washington to reopen the once-lucrative market for U.S. beef producers.
On Wednesday, President Bush telephoned Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, personally urging him to end the 15-month prohibition.
Koizumi responded that he wanted to resume imports soon, but refrained from offering a timetable. He told Bush that Tokyo was awaiting the recommendation of a food safety panel before deciding on the matter, Japan's Foreign Ministry said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to raise the issue when she visits Tokyo next week.
Before the ban, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef producers, buying $1.7 billion in 2003.
Japan tentatively agreed in October to resume imports of beef products from young cows considered less at risk for the disease, but discussions stalled over how to confirm the animals' ages.
Earlier this month, a Japanese government panel recommended that Japan begin importing U.S. grade A40 beef, which comes primarily from cattle 12-17 months old. A final decision has to be approved by the Food Safety Commission and then the agriculture and health ministries.