Seoul Cautious About Widening Beef Market

SOUTH KOREA - South Korea's top trade official strongly indicated on Thursday 17 May that talks on expanding American beef imports are unlikely for the time being due to the latest case of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
calendar icon 22 May 2012
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Trade Minister Bark Tae-ho stressed that public confidence in US beef in South Korea is the most important factor, reports YonhapNewsAgency.

"Consumption of US beef dramatically dropped in South Korea as this BSE case dealt a complete blow to public trust," he said in a meeting with South Korean correspondents in Washington.

Mr Bark met with US Trade Representative Ron Kirk Wednesday for the first meeting of a joint committee seeking ways to best implement a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations that went into effect in March.

Although Seoul and Washington wrapped up years of tough negotiations to agree on the accord, they are braced for sensitive discussions on beef trade.

In 2003, South Korea was the third-largest market for US beef before Seoul banned its import due to worries over mad cow disease. The Lee Myung-bak administration, seeking to advance the FTA process, resumed American beef imports in 2008, prompting anti-government street protests.

Under the beef protocol reached months later, South Korea currently imports US beef produced from cattle only under 30 months of age.

Some US lawmakers have since pressed the Obama government to persuade Seoul to open its beef market wider.

Mr Kirk promised to address the beef issue in a letter to Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, last year. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency shortly after the passage of the FTA in US Congress, Mr Kirk said Washington will request consultations with Seoul on the matter.

Mr Bark said this week that South Korean trust in American beef remains damaged.

"Whether we go to the negotiating table or not depends on our consumers' confidence in US beef," he said.

The US confirmed the incident of BSE on a California dairy farm in April but insisted US beef is safe to eat.

The infected California cow was older than 30 months so not eligible for import to South Korea.

Seoul toughened quarantine measures for the entry of US beef, while opposition parties call for the suspension of imports.

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