Japan’s Food Safety Commission said today (Thursday) that it had approved the easing of a two-year government ban on US and Canadian beef imposed due to mad cow disease, paving the way for partial imports to resume this month, according to the Reuters news agency.

Finalizing a report compiled in October by its subcommittee, the commission concluded that beef and beef offal from North American cattle aged up to 20 months were at very low risk from the brain-wasting disease if risk materials were removed.

“The health and agriculture ministries should make their utmost effort to ensure that U.S. and Canadian beef to be shipped to Japan meet the requirements,” Tadao Terao, deputy chairman of the commission, said at a meeting.

The Japanese government has said it would swiftly open the border to beef from such young American cattle if the commission gave formal approval, while keeping a ban on beef from older cattle.

Japanese media reported this week that the government next Monday would officially announce an easing of the ban.

Japan banned US beef and beef products in December 2003 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in Washington state.

Before the ban, Japan was the top importer of U.S. beef, with imports valued at US$1.4bn in 2003.