TOKYO - Japan wants to see the results of a survey of U.S. meatpacking plants before starting talks on reopening its market to American beef, Japan's agriculture minister said Tuesday.
Japan banned U.S. meat in January over worries about mad cow disease, and U.S. officials are in Tokyo this week to restart talks on lifting the ban.
Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said the negotiations could start as soon as Wednesday _ if Tokyo gets the answers to questions it had about 37 meatpacking plants.
"We only received an overview but there are things we want to confirm," Nakagawa told reporters. "We want to hold talks once we receive answers."
Chuck Lambert, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, is leading a team of agriculture officials to Tokyo.
The U.S. Embassy confirmed Lambert and his delegation were in Tokyo. Japan's Foreign Ministry said talks between the two countries would begin in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Japan first shut its profitable market for U.S. beef in December 2003 after the first discovery of mad cow disease in the United States. The ban was eased in December 2005 to allow the import of meat from cows 20 months old or younger.
But in January, Japanese customs officials found spine bones - which Tokyo considers at risk for the disease - in a shipment of American veal, and the market was closed again.
Since then, the U.S. conducted an investigation into the faulty shipment and submitted a report to Japanese authorities. Tokyo, however, had additional questions that it wants answered before reopening the market.
Japan was once the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef, buying some $1.4 billion of the meat in 2003.
Also on Tuesday, Hong Kong suspended beef imports from a processing plant in California run by the Harris Ranch Beef Co. after its products violated local precautions against mad cow disease. Beef with bones from the plant in question was found at Hong Kong's airport Monday. Calls to Harris Ranch, which is based in Selma, Calif., were not answered.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle. In people, eating contaminated meat products is linked to a rare but fatal disease called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease.