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WORLD BUSINESS

Japan reinstates ban on U.S. beef

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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Japan has halted the import of U.S. beef after an animal spine was found in a shipment at Tokyo International Airport, sparking new concerns over possible tainted meat less than two months after a previous ban was lifted.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters Friday that it was "extremely important to secure the food safety for the Japanese people."

In December, Japan lifted a two-year ban on U.S. beef, saying new safety measures would decrease the public's risk of contamination due to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, from U.S. beef.

Under the regulations announced at the time, only cows younger than 20 months could be exported to Japan, and all brain, spinal cord and other material must be removed.

It is unclear how long the current stoppage will last.

The U.S. beef industry suffered a devastating economic blow after Japan and several other countries banned U.S. beef because of fears of tainted meat entering the food chain. Two cows in the United States had tested positive for BSE but neither were processed as food.

In Washington, U.S. officials responded to Friday's new ban by delisting a meat processing plant and vowing action against the inspector responsible for approving the beef shipment.

"Our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column and we have failed to meet the terms of that agreement," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a statement.

He noted that because the beef was from a cow less than 30 months old, it was not "a specified risk material" but is still a violation of the export agreement.

The U.S. is taking the matter "very seriously" and the department plans to take "appropriate personnel action" against the food safety inspector who approved the shipment to Japan.

By delisting the meat processing plant, it will no longer be allowed to export beef to Japan, Johanns said.

A thorough investigation is under way and the USDA has dispatched a team of inspectors to help their Japanese counterparts reexamine all U.S. beef exports awaiting approval, Johanns said.

Japan, which has had its own cases of BSE, tests every cow sold and previously had demanded the United States do the same. U.S. producers, however, said such steps were not necessary or economical.

Before the ban, Japan was the most lucrative market in the world for American beef, importing than $1.7 billion worth in 2003, according to the U.S. government.

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