The Bush administration cancelled a Friday meeting in which officials had been expected to outline to US agriculture groups a plan to tighten mad cow disease safeguards so that a ban on imports of Canadian beef could be eased.

However, US officials are thought to be preparing to reveal a plan as early as this week that will indicate what must be done before the US can begin easing the restrictions, reported Reuters.

The private meeting due to take place last Friday was to have been led by White House agriculture adviser Chuck Conner, in order to pave the way for a public announcement this week, industry sources told Reuters. Another industry source, however, played down the importance of the meeting, saying it was one of a series of consultations on the mad cow disease issue.

Meanwhile, Japanese Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei said on Friday that Japan would be concerned if the US were to ease its ban on Canadian beef imports.

“It is not something that Japan has a say in. However if that should happen we cannot help but have strong concerns,” Kamei told reporters after a meeting in Washington with US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

Japan is the biggest buyer of US beef and has demanded stricter safeguards against Canadian beef ending up in US beef shipments to Japan.

The US ban on imports of Canadian beef was imposed following the discovery of a single case of mad cow disease in Alberta on 20 May.