LONDON – The United States, the world's biggest beef consumer, is lifting a ban on imports from Ireland more than 15 years after mad cow disease spurred restrictions of supplies from Europe.

Ireland's Agriculture Ministry said it's the first European Union country to regain access to the U.S. market, which buys more beef than any other country, according to an online statement Monday. The nation is the E.U.'s sixth-biggest beef producer and ranks third for exports, data from statistics agency Eurostat show.

U.S. beef prices rose to a record last year after years of drought and rising feed prices left the size of the cattle herd at the smallest since 1951, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tight supplies have pushed prices "significantly higher" than those in the E.U., making Irish beef competitive in the North American market, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said in an interview on RTE Radio 1.

"This U.S. market is a huge prize, given the size of the market and the demand we know exists there for premium grass-fed beef," Coveney said in the ministry's statement. "We now have first-mover advantage as a result of being the first E.U. member state to gain entry."

The U.S. imported about 2.4 billion pounds (1.09 billion kilograms) of beef and veal in the first 10 months of 2014, about 25 percent more than the same period the previous year, according to the USDA. Australia was the biggest supplier, followed by New Zealand and Canada.

Ireland's beef exports to the U.S. may total at least 50 million ($59.6 million) to 100 million euros this year, with the potential for shipments "to go way beyond that" in the future, Coveney told RTE Radio. Irish slaughterhouses produced 517,840 metric tons of beef in 2013, about 7.1 percent of the total in the E.U., according to the most recent Eurostat figures.

Britain may regain access to the U.S. market later this year, according to a spokesman at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs who asked not to be identified because of office policy. U.S. inspectors will probably check British plants in the next few months, he said.