TOKYO (AP) _ Two top farm officials who guided Japan's highly criticized response to an outbreak of mad cow disease are stepping down, Japanese agriculture minister Tsutomu Takebe announced Tuesday.

Hideaki Kumazawa, vice minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and Takemi Nagamura, head of the ministry's Livestock Industry Department, will resign in early January.

The outbreak of the fatal brain-wasting disease has caused plunges in beef sales and public confidence in the government's response. The first case was discovered in September, making Japan the only Asian country reporting the disease, and two more cases have since been confirmed.

Officials, including Kumazawa, have been criticized for not taking preventative measures earlier when Europe encountered a similar outbreak.

Nagamura's department was criticized for undermining public trust when it failed to carry out the incineration of a sick cow that was later processed into animal feed.

Takebe called the resignations a reshuffle. But the resignations were widely interpreted as a way to have the ministry shoulder blame for what many people call Japan's slow reaction.

Asked by reporters about his own role, Takebe responded, ``Resignation is not the way to take responsibility.''

Members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling coalition had called for Kumazawa's resignation because of his failure to ban the use of recycled bone meal in 1996 when Britain faced an outbreak of mad cow disease.

The disease, believed to spread through cattle feed using recycled meat and bones from infected animals, is believed to be linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Contrary to the advice of experts, Kumazawa, then director of the livestock bureau, only recommended that farmers avoid using bone-meal feed and did not ban it.

As the vice minister, he also influenced the ministry's rejection in June of a European Union report that warned of Japan's risk of a possible outbreak.