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GW Talks to Japan

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Bush Asks Koizumi to Lift Mad-Cow Ban on U.S. Beef (Update3)

March 10 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush asked Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to ensure that Japan moves quickly to lift its 14-month-old ban on U.S. beef, the Japanese government said.

Koizumi told Bush it's hard to tell when Japan will lift the ban and said his government is trying to make sure the beef issue won't hurt the relationship between the two countries, the Japanese foreign affairs ministry said today in Tokyo. The conversation, proposed by the U.S., lasted about 15 minutes, and took place last night, Tokyo time, the government said.

``It is a very positive development that President Bush spoke directly with Prime Minister Koizumi,'' said John Pelton, chief executive of Brawley Beef LLC in Brawley, California. ``Japanese officials like to negotiate at the highest levels of government.''

Japan, normally the biggest overseas customer for U.S. beef, halted purchases in December 2003 after the U.S. found its first- ever case of mad cow disease in Washington state. Japan had purchased about $1.5 billion in U.S. beef and beef products in 2003 before imposing its ban.

``Obviously we would like to see the market open up and it's something we continue to discuss,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One, on Wednesday as Bush flew to Ohio for an energy speech. ``They had a good discussion,'' he said, adding that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will raise the topic in an upcoming trip.

`All Appropriate Steps'

The Bush administration said in a March 1 trade report to Congress that it will take ``all appropriate steps'' to make sure Japan acts quickly to lift the ban. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the same day that delays by Japan in setting a date to resume beef purchases ``could further complicate'' relations with the U.S.

Japan in October agreed to resume buying beef from cattle under age 20 months, because scientists believe younger animals are at minimal risk for carrying the disease. The countries then spent months negotiating how to determine an animal's age. Japanese technical experts last month accepted a U.S. system.

``Our customers in Japan have a very positive view of U.S. beef and want to start importing again,'' said Pelton, whose company feeds and slaughters about 420,000 grain-fed Holstein steers a year at an average age of 15-18 months. The company exported about 15 percent of its production to Japan and Korea before the import bans on U.S. beef.

``Japanese customers told us they are more concerned about mercury in their tuna, and shark and avian flu is a bigger concern'' than the risk of importing beef with mad cow disease from cattle less than 20 months of age, he said.

Last month, 20 farm-state senators sent a letter to Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Ryozo Kato, warning that the U.S. ``may pursue equitable retaliatory economic actions'' against Japan.

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