WASHINGTON – The Government of Mexico announced it will allow imports of boneless cuts of U.S. beef from animals less than 30 months old into the country for the first time since the discovery of a single case of mad cow disease in Washington state.

The announcement came two days before Mexico’s President Vincente Fox was scheduled to meet with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Mexican officials said they would also permit imports of veal from animals less than nine months old, but that the ban it imposed on Christmas Eve last year will still apply to live animals and beef detained at the border since Dec. 24.

“I am very pleased that Secretary Javier Usabiaga of Mexico is announcing that he is reopening the border to U.S. beef products,” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a statement issued following the announcement.

“We have worked closely with the Mexican officials to inform them of all the actions USDA has taken to further strengthen our food safety and animal health systems since the discovery of a BSE positive animal last December. We have provided to Mexican officials extensive information as requested, and have hosted their technical teams to illustrate that our beef is indeed safe.”

As the second largest export market for U.S. beef and beef products, the action was expected to have a positive effect on U.S. markets and possibly lead other countries to remove all or part of their bans on U.S. beef.

“We are very pleased that today's announcement begins the resumption of this trade,” Veneman said. “I want to thank Secretary Usabiaga for his strong leadership in resuming trade and hope that his example will be followed by our other trading partners.”

Officials with the American Meat Institute, meanwhile, asked Mexico’s officials to lift the ban on live cattle and other beef and beef products as soon as possible.

“We are encouraged that the government of Mexico will seek to restore limited imports of U.S. boneless beef products,” said J. Patrick Boyle, AMI president. “However, we believe full trade in all beef products and in live animals from the United States should be restored swiftly.

In another development, USDA said it would test hundreds of thousands of U.S. cattle for the BSE or mad cow disease for one year. The testing program will be aimed at cattle over 30 months of age and so-called “downer” cattle that are having difficulty walking.

The latter are expected to be among the cattle at highest risk of contracting the disease.

According to USDA figures, Mexico spent about $870 million on U.S. beef in 2003 compared with about $1.4 billion by Japan, typically the largest purchaser of U.S. beef.

There has been no word on when the Japanese might reopen their borders. Currently, Japanese officials are asking that the United States test all beef and beef products sold for export to Japan before it will allow those back in the country.

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