By Aya Takada and Yasumasa Song
Japan will ease restrictions on U.S. beef imports next month, boosting supplies to restaurant chains such as Yoshinoya Holdings Co., after food safety authorities said the change wouldn’t increase health risks.
"We will implement the relaxation as early as Feb. 1" after explaining the decision to the public, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters in Tokyo today. The Food Safety Commission recommended the change in October.
Japan, the biggest buyer of American beef before an outbreak of mad-cow disease in 2003, will allow imports of beef from cattle up to 30-months old, from 20 months previously. It lifted a two-year ban in 2005 that was imposed to safeguard against the brain-wasting disease.
The new rule will widen opportunities for U.S. shippers such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. Beef, along with auto and insurance, is a sector the U.S. asked Japan to reform before joining negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
Yoshinoya to suspend sales of its popular "gyudon" beef bowl during the ban. Lighter restrictions will increase beef supply and may reduce purchasing costs for Japanese retailers, according to Susumu Harada, senior director at the Tokyo office of U.S. Meat Export Federation.
Yoshinoya shares gained 0.3 percent to 107,800 yen ($1,205) at the 11:30 a.m. break in Tokyo.
The U.S. was the largest exporter to Japan after Australia in 2003, supplying 267,583 metric tons worth 128.5 billion yen, according to data from the agriculture ministry. Tyson, JBS SA, Cargill Inc. and National Beef Inc. are the biggest U.S. beef suppliers to Japan, according to the federation.
In the first half of 2012, Japan purchased 56,887 tons of U.S. beef, 10 percent more than a year earlier. Total imports amounted to 240,815 tons, of which 64 percent was from Australia.