[Viewpoint]Korea’s beef about bones is unfairTo get right to the point, a bone fragment in meat is an unreasonable reason for an entire shipment of beef from the United States to be rejected. When a large number of cattle are slaughtered and the beef is separated from the bones, there is the possibility bone fragments will be left.
The bones in question were so small that even X-ray meat inspection machines failed to detect them. South Korea should not have decided to send back a whole load of beef based on a small fragment of bone found in some tens of tons of imported beef.
It is said that the South Korean authorities made the decision in accordance with the agreement between the two governments.
I looked into the agreement and found that it allowed for “the importing of boneless meat from cattle less than 30 months old.” The expression “boneless meat” was inserted at the request of South Korean side at last year’s bilateral beef negotiations.
South Korean negotiators must have done so to prevent the possibility mad cow disease might spread among Korean beef consumers. It is laudable that civil servants have taken a thorough attitude in protection of the health of the people who pay their salaries.
However, the current problem between South Korea and the United States goes far beyond such administrative considerations of South Korean negotiators. In December 2003, a cow with mad cow disease was found in the United States. South Korea stopped beef imports from the United States immediately. The U.S. beef that now has just managed to squeeze past Korea’s high importing barrier comes from cattle born more than six months after the infected cow was found and slaughtered, according to regulations. This is the result of South Korean negotiators who tried to eliminate the possibility that Korean consumers could be infected with the disease.
It is excessive self-defense that South Korea has decided to turn away all shipments of beef from the United States by raising the issue of a bone fragment smaller than the size of a fingernail, while importing U.S. beef that satisfies the conditions prescribed in the agreement.
There may be people who will criticize me as talking without knowing how deadly mad cow disease is. I know the serious effects the disease brings to the human body.
Kang Mun-il, director general of the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service, said on Dec. 31 last year, “The bone fragments were not detected by an X-ray inspection machine because they was only a few millimeters in length and breadth and only one millimeter in thickness, and it seems that the fragments came from a rib bone.”
Medical experts say there is no worry of mad cow disease transmission with such tiny bone fragments.
Japan also stopped importing beef from the United States around the same time with South Korea, but the country, after much consideration, resumed importing U.S. beef in July of last year. I don’t think Japan has decided to import beef on the bone, because the country’s sanitary standards are less strict than that of South Korea.
Two million Koreans living in the United States enjoy eating roasted rib on the bone cut Los Angeles style and cow bone broth. T-bone steaks and hamburgers are still the favorite dishes of Americans. No one thinks Americans who eat American beef dishes are risking their lives because they worry over the difficulties of American farmers.
Generally speaking, the higher the sanitary standards, the more advanced a country is. In Japan, too, food-related problems occur occasionally, but they are not as serious compared to those in Korea.
The Food and Drug Administration of the United States, which is responsible for the safety of food in the United States, is one of the most strict government agencies in the world.
The issue of bone fragments can be seen as a symbol that shows how seriously the government considers the people’s health.
But the same rule is not applied in other cases. For example, we seldom hear that the government has applied the same strict standard to countless foodstuffs imported from China and other countries.
American government officials are very upset now. Following the aggressive words of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, 11 U.S. senators summoned Lee Tae-sik, Korean ambassador to the United States, and expressed their strong displeasure on Dec. 17 of last year.
Senator Byron Dorgan even remarked during the meeting, “We should return all 700,000 imported Hyundai cars if any problem occurs during a safety test.”
Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator at the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement negotiations, said the free trade agreement with the United States will not be possible if South Korea continues to behave like this.
How urgent was the situation that a U.S. trade negotiation expert should have made such threatening words?
A free trade agreement is signed in the mutual interest of concerned countries. It is not something the United States grants to South Korea as a favor.
In the past three years during which the importing of beef from the United States was banned, Australia has been all smiles. The country has occupied three-quarters of Korea’s imported beef market ― the same market share U.S. beef occupied earlier. As a trade partner, the weight of Australia is very small compared to that of the United States. Under such circumstances, it is not wise to favor Australia unilaterally. Perhaps it will not be good for our national interest either.
Domestic beef prices are around four to five times higher than those of advanced countries. Ordinary households do not dare consume as much as they want. If American beef and Australian beef compete in the market, Korean consumers can benefit from their competition.
Similarly, the competitiveness of Korean beef should be enhanced through special marketing activities emphasizing its high quality, such as by developing a special brand name like “Hoengseong Korean Beef.”
*The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shim Shang-bok