Japan is partly lifting its ban on imported beef from the United States -- but only to a point. According to a story today in Reuters, the country will accept less than one-fifth the amount of U.S. beef it once consumed.

In December 2003, Japan and 40 other countries banned the importation of U.S. beef following the discovery of mad cow disease at one supplier in the state of Washington.

Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), where beef accounted for 45.2% of total sales over the last 12 months, saw its international beef sales decrease 31.6% in fiscal year 2004. The company took $61 million in charges related to the mad cow scare and the subsequent closing of import markets.

Japan purchased $1.4 billion in U.S. beef in 2003, making it our largest importer at the time. For now, beef from cattle up to 20 months old will be allowed into the country (since the earliest case of mad cow disease detected in 2003 was in a 21-month-old animal).

The news lifted Tyson's stock a modest 2% by midday. However, investors should remember that in the absence of U.S. beef, Australia stepped in to keep steaks and burgers on Japanese tables. While the sales increase for Tyson and fellow beef exporter Smithfield (NYSE:SFD) will certainly beef up operating results, improvements won't happen quickly.

Fellow contributor Stephen D. Simpson saw little to get excited about when reviewing Tyson's recently completed fiscal year and next year's guidance. He also found Hormel (NYSE:HRL) more attractive than Smithfield, given its better margins and return on capital.

Were I seeking food industry opportunities, I'd be more inclined to sample Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) and Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT), both of which boast operating margins roughly twice as large as Hormel's. Now that's a meaty investing opportunity.

Hungry for companies with tasty results and fat, juicy dividends? Income Investor serves up fresh selections every month. Sign up today for a free 30-day trial.

Fools, now is the time to open your hearts and wallets to worthy causes! Please support our five Foolish charities at www.foolanthropy.com.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any shares in the companies mentioned. Click here to see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.