The US is to ease its ban on imports of beef from neighbouring Canada

US Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced that, after a thorough scientific analysis, the US Department of Agriculture will begin accepting applications for import permits for certain ruminant derived products from Canada.

The US banned all imports of Canadian cattle and beef back in May, after a single case of mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien welcomed the news and encouraged other countries to follow suit.

"I would urge other countries that have closed their market to Canadian beef and other products to follow the leadership of the United States and take steps immediately to reopen their borders," Chretien was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The ban has cost the Canadian beef industry millions of dollars in lost revenues. Prior to the ban, Canada was exporting around US$1.1bn worth of beef products and $1.1bn worth of live cattle to the US each year. The USDA estimates that with the easing of the trade ban, Canada will resume exports of about 40% of its normal value of beef.

Meanwhile, Japan has agreed to a voluntary verification programme of US beef exports, following its previous demands that the US certifies any beef it exports to Japan as not containing any Canadian meat.

Under the deal, US beef processors can verify that their beef is derived from US cattle only and Japan will only accept meat from those processors that participate in the programmes. US meat processors will have until 1 September, when the US ban on Canadian beef is to be eased, to comply with the voluntary programme if they wish to continue to export to Japan.

"A reliable system has been established in order to prevent Canadian beef from being shipped to Japan via the US," Hiroshi Nakagawa, chief of the Japanese ministry's Food Safety and Consumer Affairs Bureau, was quoted by Reuters as saying.