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Wagyu to return to China's dinner tables after 20-year import ban

Foreign ministers to sign agreement paving way for Japan to resume sales

Japanese beef sold at a supermarket in Taipei. Wagyu could become available for consumers in mainland China next year.

TOKYO -- Japan is set to resume beef exports to China as early as next year as Beijing relaxes its nearly two-decade ban under a new bilateral safety cooperation agreement, Nikkei has learned.

Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi are expected to agree Monday on cooperation on animal health and quarantines, positioned as a prerequisite for beef export resumption. Wang will be visiting Japan for the Group of 20 foreign ministerial meetings in Nagoya on Friday and Saturday.

An agreement would bring Japanese beef to the world's largest population for the first time since 2001, when China halted imports after mad cow disease hit Japan. The move would be a big boost to Tokyo's effort to reinvigorate the nation's agricultural sector.

After signing a deal, the countries would work to hammer out details such as safety standards. Relations between the two countries have been improving of late as they make top- and cabinet-level reciprocal visits. Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to visit Japan as a state guest early next year, the first such official visit by a Chinese leader since 2008.

The Japanese government aims to raise export values for agricultural, forestry and marine products and food to 1 trillion yen ($9.21 billion) this year, and to 5 trillion yen by 2030.

Japan's beef exports have been growing as prized wagyu varieties receive recognition. In fiscal 2018, beef exports, including refrigerated and frozen products, climbed 28% on the year to a sixth consecutive annual record of 3,799 tons, according to the government-linked Agriculture & Livestock Industries.

China, the world's largest importer of beef, took in about 1.46 million tons of the meat in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That figure represents a more than threefold increase from five years earlier. Domestic production has been unable to keep up with a surge in beef consumption in urban areas.

Motegi will also seek lenience on China's remaining restrictions on importing agricultural products from regions of Japan that were hit by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdown. China still bans all food and feed produced in nine prefectures including Fukushima and its northern and southern neighbors, Miyagi and Ibaraki.

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