Prudent approach to mad cowA dairy cow in the state of California has been confirmed as the United States’ fourth domestic case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - commonly known as mad cow disease - since it hit the country six years ago. Korea imported 563,013 tons of U.S. beef last year and Koreans have vivid memories of the massive candlelight protests in 2008 against importing of U.S. beef.
But it is too early to tell if the lethal disease has been found in U.S. beef imports. Korea restricts U.S. beef imports to cattle younger than 30 months old as older animals are at higher risk of having the disease - and to cattle whose specified risk material (SRM) is removed. In general, it takes a long time before the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) officially notifies a country of the existence of the disease in cattle as the government needs to conduct an epidemiologic investigation before the OIE makes a final judgment. It is also difficult for the Korean government to take unilateral action to suspend beef imports because of its obligation to respect the agreed hygiene conditions.
Yet, we should take into account our deep psychological trauma from the massive protest in 2008. A year later, the government established guidelines for dealing with a breakout of the disease. According to them, the quarantine authorities immediately stop inspections on beef imports from a suspicious country and then decide whether to impose restrictions on beef imports after experts’ assessment of the risk.
However, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries appears to be fueling people’s anxiety by announcing that it will reach a final decision after collecting more information on the disease. The authorities must quickly stop quarantining U.S. beef. Under any circumstances, the government must prioritize the safety of its people ahead of anything to receive their trust.
Korea has yet to conclude renegotiations to fix the clause on settling investor-state disputes between both sides. After the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement went into force earlier this year, the United States has been building pressure on us by demanding that Korea buy the beef of U.S. cattle older than 30 months old. We should deal with the issue prudently. The government should delay a negotiation on when to expand U.S. beef imports, not to mention a negotiation on ISD clauses. It must also thwart radical civic groups’ attempt to take advantage of the disease breakout in the U.S. It is time for both countries to cope with it wisely.