Japan may be on track to easing beef imports from the United States, Japanese news bureau Kyodo News reported Wednesday.
A ban on imports of U.S. beef was instituted in 2003 after an outbreak of BSE. In 2005, the ban was lifted and Japan began to accept beef from animals 20 months of age and younger.
Now, Kyodo reports that a panel of exports has recommended easing the age restriction to include animals 30 months and younger. A final decision is expected early next year. The change, if implemented, would apply to not only the U.S., but also Canada, France and the Netherlands.
Montana Senator Max Baucus was encouraged by the reports, and said that the news was a good sign of progress, but not the end of the fight.
"Japan's restrictions on American beef are just plain unfair, and I will continue to push Japan to open its markets," Baucus noted in a statement.
Baucus has previously been a supporter of easing Japanese export restrictions on beef, and last month met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to discuss the situation.
According to USDA statistics, exports of U.S. beef fell from a value of $3.1 billion in 2003 to $631 million in 2004, showing signs of significant loss from Japan's imports, which fell from $1.1 billion to just $31 million from 2003 to 2004.
In 2011, the value of exports to Japan had risen to $872 million. Japan is the third-largest export market for U.S. beef by volume, falling just behind Mexico and Canada.