TOKYO (AP) _ A Japanese government panel on mad cow disease delayed a decision Monday on whether to recommend easing a two-year-old ban on U.S. beef imports, despite preparing a draft report concluding the risk from American beef is very low.
The panel had been widely expected to send the report to the Food Safety Commission, setting in motion a process that could lead to the reopening of Japan _ U.S. beef's most lucrative overseas market _ to the imports by the end of the year.
Japan bought about $1.5 billion worth of U.S. beef in 2003, making it the most lucrative overseas market for American beef products.
The delay risked flaring tensions with the United States ahead of a visit in mid-November by President Bush. U.S. beef producers and their supporters have argued that the ban was unnecessary and have accused Japan of dragging its feet on lifting it.
Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, chairman of the panel, said he hoped the panel would reach a final decision as early as at the next meeting, which is expected later this month or early next month.
``In today's meeting we were not able to reach an agreement,'' Yoshikawa said.
He said the decision was delayed because two key members were unable to attend, and other members said they wanted more information about two other diseases in the United States that could be related to mad cow disease.
Japan imposed the ban on Dec. 24, 2003, after the discovery of the first case of mad cow in the United States, in Washington state.
After lengthy negotiations, the two governments this year agreed that Japan would reopen its markets to meat from American cows of less than 21 months old. Mad cow disease has never been detected in cows that young.
The panel had already prepared a draft report concluding that the difference in risk between Japanese and American beef was very low, as long as proper precautions were taken. Japan has discovered 20 domestic cases of mad cow disease since 2002, but tests every cow going to market.
Several panelists, however, raised questions about reliability of U.S. safeguard measures and how they can be ensured.
``The risk would be very low, if proper precautions are strictly followed,'' Yoshikawa said. ``And even if imports are resumed, we must consider halting (imports) once again if those conditions are not met.''
After the panel's failure to reach conclusion, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters that ``I think the conclusion should be reached from the viewpoint of food safety.''
Scientists agree that beef infected with mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes a fatal brain disorder in humans. Since the 1990s, the death toll from the disease topped 150 people, mostly in Britain.
The U.S. frustration over the import ban and Tokyo's dragging examination of U.S. beef safety has been building up recently. Earlier this month 20 U.S. senators sent a joint letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, formally asking ``to employ retaliatory economic measures against Japan'' if its import barrier is kept in place.
On Monday, visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said officials in Washington _ from members of Congress to officials in the Bush administration _ were growing impatient with the slow process.
``There is a great deal of frustration in the United States that this problem has not been resolved after such a long time,'' he told reporters in Tokyo, calling for a quick resumption of beef imports.