Takashi Aoki, a Tokyo university student, has a keen interest in common with the US ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker. They both want Japan to lift its ban on American beef imports. They are counting on a breakthrough at talks on Monday to address the prohibition, which was sparked by mad cow disease. Japan imposed the ban last December when the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was confirmed in the US. Japan previously imported 400,000 tonnes of American beef annually. That meat has disappeared from Japanese supermarkets and restaurant menus, driving small restaurants specialising in beef out of business. 'I miss gyudon [sliced beef on a bowl of rice], which has been gone for months now,' says Mr Aoki, of the popular fast food that used to be available for less than 400 yen (HK$28). With beef in short supply, restaurants replaced it with pork. 'It is no way a replacement; we want American beef back in the bowls,' he says. Mr Baker would be happy to hear more Japanese consumers talking this way. In general, they have been worried about food safety, and support the government's retention of the ban despite pressure from Washington. Japan requires domestic beef suppliers to conduct costly tests on all domestic cattle. It is calling for the same standard in the US before it will resume imports. The US government has dismissed this by calling such testing unscientific, and saying sample testing of a representative number of cows is effective enough. Behind the American resistance is the powerful beef lobby. But the sense of deadlock has begun to ease, in recent weeks. Mr Baker met last Wednesday with farm minister Yoshiyuki Kamei, and later told reporters the two countries could reach a settlement later this summer. The solution may lie in importing meat from calves no older than 20 months. Such young animals cannot develop the disease, BSE experts say. If a gradual resumption of veal imports are approved by Japan's Food Safety Committee this summer, it would still take several months for imports to actually arrive. Unlike Mr Aoki, consumer organisations are afraid the ban may be lifted for political reasons, without closely examining safety concerns. 'I [hope] the [Food Safety] Committee - made up of specialists and experts - will make its conclusion fully reflecting consumers' views,' said Hiroshi Kawashima, president of Tokyu Store, a major supermarket. Whatever the committee's final verdict, given the strong emotions and business interests involved, the beefs over beef may not disappear overnight.