The U.S. cattle industry could have a real reason to celebrate this Christmas. After months of political pressure, criticism, pleas and lobbying, Japan appears to be ready to conditionally remove its controversial ban on United States beef imports.

The stop-gate has amounted to billions of dollars in profits lost for the U.S. beef industry.

The ban’s lifting would come on the heels of a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who while in Japan conveyed dismay over what the United States depicts as slow progress by Japan to finalize negotiations between the two countries over health safety procedures. Both countries had tentatively come to an agreement about a year ago, but that was never completed.

Japan – once the U.S. beef industry’s most lucrative export destination – began blocking imports in late 2002 for fear of exposing bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly called mad-cow disease – to consumers in meat products.

The United States has insisted that its safety measures are sufficient to prevent such exposure from happening.

According to the USDA, a group of Japanese delegates are expected to visit the United States in the next few days to observe first-hand that packing plants are fully following ramped up protocol that would ensure disease detection.

As part of the new proposal, Japan has tentatively agreed to accept only restricted U.S. beef imports from animals no older than 20 months old, along with assurances from U.S. officials that a rigorous set of safety steps would continue.

“This a great win for U.S. beef,” Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said in a statement. “Japan represents $100 million every month for the U.S. beef industry. Japan health officials finally realized that our nation has the safest meat in the world.”

However, U.S. beef producers worry that recouping Japan’s once profitable market may take several years, partly due to difficulties identifying cattle that would fit Japan’s criteria, and also due to Japanese remaining reluctance to eat U.S. beef.

A recent consumers’ poll taken by the Japanese publication, Kyodo News, revealed that about 75 percent of residents surveyed remain unwilling to eat U.S. beef; 62 percent indicated doubt on the meat’s safety; and 21 percent said they would prefer to substitute Australian beef for American.

e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com