Officials from Japan and the United States met in San Francisco last week for two days of much-anticipated discussion about American beef safety, but the talks ended without any change to Japan’s strict laws barring meat from American cows over 20 months of age.

Japanese import regulations toward U.S. beef tightened after the 2003 mad cow disease scare, when a single Washington cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Prior to that, Japan had been the largest export market for American beef.

The import restrictions eased somewhat in 2006, when Japan began allowing in American beef from cows younger than 21 months.  Mad cow disease has not been detected in younger cows but, even so, some Japanese consumers were reluctant to buy the imported beef.  One Japanese newspaper reported that two-thirds of people responding to a survey said they would not eat beef imported from the U.S.

The American beef industry, however, has been eager to restore its lost economic opportunity in Japan, and has been been pushing for talks about normalizing beef exports to resume.

But convincing Japan to relent on its policies was apparently not at the top of the agenda last week.  Instead, the discussions focused on food safety practices and policies.

“The purpose of these working-level discussions was to clarify technical issues and address questions.  This was not a negotiating session,” a U.S. Trade Representative spokeswoman told

Before the meeting, Japanese Farm Minister Masahiko Yamada also explained that the talks were not intended to change current policy, but to discuss technology and practice related to BSE.

“Our stance is unchanged,” the Minister was quoted as saying to reporters. “We would like to hold talks based on scientific knowledge as we consider food safety as a very important issue.”

Nevertheless, last week’s meeting was the first such talk between the two countries on the subject of beef since a failed 2007 attempt.  Excitement within the beef community had been building since the talks were announced this summer.  Food Safety News reported on the announcement in mid July, citing the high hopes some Japanese restaurant owners held for the possibility that more American beef would be allowed into the nation.

The bilateral talks came amidst reports that South Korea may boost its U.S. beef imports by 24 percent next year.  South Korea tends to follow Japanese import policies, but that nation may increase its U.S. beef imports from 110,000 metric tons this year to 299.8 million pounds in 2011, according to the USDA.

Although the Japan-American talks did not lead to normalization of trade rules between the two countries, they appear to have gone well for both nations.  A statement issued jointly by USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said the two sides “covered a wide array of technical topics related to [bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)].”

Those topics included current Japanese regulations and regulatory processes, Japan’s risk-assessment process for beef and the country’s import inspection and border measures.  Tokyo sought clarification on U.S. progress on BSE surveillance measures, among other things.

Officials from the two countries agreed to meet again soon, though no specific dates have been set.