UPDATE 2-Japan agrees to relax U.S. beef import restrictions

Mon Jan 28, 2013 12:24pm EST
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* Govt panel of medical, food experts approves step

* Move to allow imports from cattle older than 20 months

* U.S. beef exports to Japan dropped 60 pct over past decade

* CME live cattle futures traders welcome Japan's steps

* Exports could encounter economic headwinds in near term

By Risa Maeda and Theopolis Waters

TOKYO/CHICAGO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Japan on Monday agreed to allow U.S. beef imports from cattle up to 30 months old from February, relaxing a restriction in place for about a decade on what was once the biggest market for U.S. exports.

Under rules imposed in 2005, U.S. beef imports had been allowed only from cattle up to 20 months old after a total ban in 2003 following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The restrictions helped Australia boost its share of Japan's 500,000-tonnes-a-year imported beef market.

Raising the age restriction, which had been mulled since 2011 as concern over mad cow disease ebbed, will allow U.S. exporters such as Cargill Inc and JBS USA Holdings Inc to regain lost market share in the world's No.2 beef importer.   Continued...