South Korea, U.S. reach agreement on partial resumption of American beef imports

Friday, January 13th 2006, 10:27 am
By: News On 6

GWACHEON, South Korea (AP) _ South Korea agreed Friday to resume imports of some American beef, banned two years ago over fears of mad cow disease, the government said.

South Korea will start importing U.S. meat from cows under 30 months old by the end of March, the government said in a statement.

But the agreement excludes the import of beef ribs, a key U.S. demand in negotiations, South Korea said. Beef ribs accounted for more than 60 percent of American beef shipments here before the ban, according the U.S. Embassy.

The two sides had been holding talks since Monday, though they took a break Wednesday. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment, saying the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Agriculture would release details later in Washington.

South Korea imported 199,410 tons of U.S. beef worth about $847 million in 2003 until just before the ban was imposed, according to the South Korean Agriculture Ministry.

South Korea shut its doors to U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease. At the time, it was the third-largest foreign market for American beef, after Japan and Mexico.

South Korea agreed to import meat only because bone material such as marrow has been cited as dangerous to consume. It also won't import brains, spinal cords and other cow parts that are thought to transmit mad cow disease.

The government cites World Organization for Animal Health guidelines, which stipulate that there should be no limit on boneless beef imports from cows less than 30 months old.

Scientists believe mad cow disease _ formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy _ spreads when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals. It is thought to cause the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

South Korea warned imports could be suspended again if safety concerns re-emerge.

``If the South Korean government determines the situation has worsened, including the outbreak of BSE, it can suspend the imports of U.S. beef,'' said Park Hyun-chool, the director general of the livestock bureau ad t the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry.

``We place top priority on consumer safety,'' he told reporters.

U.S. beef is expected to be in stores in April, Park said.

A ministry advisory panel last month said U.S. beef could be considered safe to eat if tougher inspection and quarantine measures were taken, paving the way for this week's negotiations.

The issue remains sensitive in South Korea. Some 2,000 cattle ranchers held a peaceful protest near the National Assembly on Friday against lifting the ban.

Japan, which had a similar ban, last month agreed to import meat from U.S. cows under 21 months old because no cases of mad cow disease have ever been found in cows that age.

Under that agreement, which also eased a ban on Canadian beef, North American producers must certify the age of the cows and follow strict guidelines, such as removing brains, spinal cords and other parts.

South Korea has yet to lift its ban on Canadian beef. Park said South Korean and Canadian experts would meet this spring.