UPDATE 3-Japan eases import curbs on U.S., Canadian, French beef
* Government panel of medical, food experts approve step
* Move to allow imports from cattle older than 20 months
* US beef exports to Japan dropped by 60 pct past decade
* CME live cattle futures traders welcome Japan's steps
By Risa Maeda and Theopolis Waters
TOKYO/CHICAGO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Japan on Monday agreed to allow U.S., Canadian and French beef imports from cattle up to 30 months old beginning on Feb. 1, relaxing a safeguard against mad cow disease that has frustrated North American producers for a decade.
"This is great news for American ranchers and beef companies," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement which estimated the move could boost U.S. beef exports to Japan by "hundreds of millions of dollars" in coming years.
Canada and France also welcomed Tokyo's move, which reflects ebbing public concern in the world's third-largest economy about mad cow disease, or bovine bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), almost 20 years after it shook the British beef industry and then was found in North America in 2003.
Japan's decision, which has been under consideration since 2011, addresses a long-time irritant in U.S.-Japan relations ahead of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expected visit to Washington in February. It also clears a major obstacle to Japan's potential participation in a U.S.-led regional free trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Continued...