An intensive investigation into Japan's handling of the BSE crisis is expected to report its findings by the end of January.

The committee looking into the Japanese outbreak of BSE last autumn is trying to ascertain whether officials at the farm and health ministries acted quickly enough and took appropriate measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

The committee has targeted much of its activity on officials in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry as well as at the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry to ascertain whether adequate steps were taken to put a fast end to the use of meat-and-bone meal in animal feed, a practice which has been associated with the spread of BSE.

The investigation is also seeking to establish a clear view of the decision-making processes implemented by the relevant authorities. It has been alleged that the authorities were criminally slow to react to the crisis, as the first confirmed case of BSE went unnoticed for almost a week by the farm ministry, despite the latter organisation being informed by local officials.

Just as seriously, the panel is also questioning why the health ministry kept quiet the fact that it had dismissed a report from the European Union which warned as early as June last year that Japan was considered at high risk for an outbreak of BSE. The farm ministry is alleged to have disregarded the report on the basis that a similar risk report conducted by a different international organisation had reached the conclusion that Japan was a low-risk country.