The AP and Reuters news services are reporting that Japan's agriculture minister admitted he did not follow the cabinet's policy of checking U.S. meatpackers before resuming beef imports, prompting a call for his resignation from an opposition party.

When the first U.S. instance of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in 2003, Tokyo banned U.S. beef imports. The ban was partially lifted in December 2005, but put back in place this month when cattle parts believed to have a higher risk of the disease were found in a U.S. shipment to Japan.

Reuters reports that last November, the month before Japan lifted the two-year-old ban, "the cabinet adopted a policy that the government should inspect U.S. meatpacking plants that would export beef to Japan to see if they complied with agreed procedures before resuming beef imports from the United States."

But, the news agencies said, it wasn't until after Japan lifted the ban on Dec. 12 that the country started checking U.S. meatpackers. Four days later, the first shipment of U.S. beef in two years arrived at a Japanese airport.

Japan's Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said the ministry did not act in accordance with the cabinet's decision because it could not make a judgment about U.S. compliance before U.S. beef shipments to Japan resumed, Reuters said.

According to the AP, Nakagawa told a parliament committee, "I apologize for not fulfilling the requirement to conduct inspections prior to the resumption. I will think about how to take responsibility for that."

He added that any decision on whether he should resign will be left up to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Japan's Vice Agriculture Minister Mamoru Ishihara said today Monday the ministry was now considering sending Japanese inspectors to U.S. meatpacking plants before accepting beef from the facilities, as originally planned by the cabinet, the Reuters article said.

"We are considering what we should do additionally to ensure food safety," Ishihara told reporters.

AP said that according to Kyodo News agency, the head of Japan's beef safety panel, Yasuhiro Yoshikawa, over the weekend recommended separate processing lines for beef destined for the Japanese market due to different rules in the U.S. and Japan regarding what cattle parts are acceptable.

SOURCE: Reuters news article and Associated Press reports.