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TOKYO, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Japan's health ministry said on Tuesday it would ask the Food Safety Commission to review import rules currently imposed on U.S. and Canadian beef, amid speculation that the country may ease restrictions on imports of beef from North America.
Japan only allows imports of U.S. and Canadian beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger due to fears of mad-cow disease (BSE). The rule, in place since 2005, has caused U.S. imports to plunge and Australian beef to gain market share in Japan's 500,000 tonnes-a-year imported beef market.
"The number of BSE incidents has clearly decreased throughout the world," said a health ministry official.
"For cases in which risks have clearly decreased, we need to review rules by taking into account the latest scientific knowledge," the official said.
The number of BSE cases worldwide fell to just 45 in 2010 from 37,316 in 1992, according to the ministry.
Media reported last month that Japan will relax import rules on U.S. and Canadian beef as early as next year, allowing imports of cattle that were 30 months or younger, rather than 20 months now.
It took six months to examine data and come to a decision in 2005 when the independent food safety panel imposed the 20-month-age limit. (Reporting by Yuko Inoue; Editing by Chris Gallagher)