* Move would allow imports from cattle older than 20 months
* U.S. beef exports to Japan drop by 60 pct over past decade
By Risa Maeda
TOKYO, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Japan could from next month allow U.S. beef imports from cattle up to 30 months old, easing a restriction in place since 2005 on what was once the biggest market for U.S. exports.
The move, which Tokyo has been mulling since 2011 under pressure from Washington as concern over mad cow disease ebbed, would allow U.S. exporters like Cargill Inc and JBS USA Holdings Inc to regain lost market share in the world's number two beef importer.
"We're due to change the import restrictions on Feb. 1 if a medicine and food panel of experts gives us approval," Health Minister Norihisa Tamura was quoted as saying by a ministry spokesman.
The rules, imposed in 2005, permitted U.S. beef imports from cattle up to 20 months old after a total ban in 2003 following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The country's imports of U.S. beef plunged by 60 percent to some 120,000 tonnes from 2001 to 2011, with Australian suppliers the main beneficiaries in an import market worth over $2 billion.
The panel of experts is scheduled to meet on Jan. 28, but it is not yet clear when the government will announce detailed regulations on U.S. beef imports.
Japan's food safety watchdog said in a report to the government in October that the risk from importing beef from cattle aged 30 months or younger from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands would be negligible to human health.
The government has since held a series of public consultations and also held bilateral talks on how the new safety requirements would be met in the supplying countries.
"We're hoping that the label of 'special to Japan' will be scrapped," said Haruhiko Kizu, a spokesman of Yoshinoya Holdings Co, a restaurant chain operator that continues to use U.S. beef.
"If the age limit is raised to 30 months, that would pave the way for importing beef from cattle aged around 20 months, which we consider the best in quality," Kizu said.