Japan is set to ease its ban on imports of US beef following the announcement by a Japanese food safety panel that beef from young US cattle are safe for consumption providing that specific risk materials have been removed.

The Japanese Food Safety Commission panel concluded, after five months of discussions, that beef from US cattle aged 20 months or younger represents a very low BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) risk if materials such as the spinal cord, which can carry the disease, are removed, reported Reuters.

"We concluded that with regard to the risk of mad cow disease, the difference between Japanese beef and meat from American cattle aged 20 months or below is very small," Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, the chairman of the subcommittee, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

No date has been announced for the resumption of US beef imports, which were banned in December 2003 after a case of BSE was found in a cow in Washington State.