Gov’t holds firm on U.S. beef imports despite furor

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Gov’t holds firm on U.S. beef imports despite furor

Refusing to bow to opposition pressure to stop U.S. beef imports after a dairy cow in California tested positive for mad cow disease, the Blue House yesterday reaffirmed its position to leave the door open with stepped-up quarantine inspections.

The reaffirmation came as Thailand followed Indonesia in suspending U.S. beef imports until they receive more information about the California case.

“Based on the information that we have, we believe reinforced quarantine measures are enough for the time being,” Choe Geum-nak, senior secretary to the president for public relations, said yesterday.

Choe said a joint investigation team of civilian and government experts will depart for the United States today to check on the situation. “Based on their reports, we can make another decision on what we should do,” he said.

Stressing that the top priority for the government was public safety, Choe said the Lee administration needs to consider other factors including international norms and practices on handling the outbreak and imports.

The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries started quarantine checks on 50 percent of U.S. beef imports starting Wednesday after the first case of mad cow disease in six years was confirmed in a dairy cow in California. Previously, the ministry conducted inspections on 3 percent of beef imported from the U.S.

“We increased the ratio of inspected imports from 3 percent to 30 percent and then to 50 percent to ease the people’s concerns,” Choe said. “There is no possibility of infected beef entering Korea from the United States.”

Inside U.S. Trade, a U.S. magazine, reported Friday that the Singapore branch of the U.S. Meat Export Federation had received a notification of suspension of imports from the Thai government. Indonesia stopped imports on Thursday.

The federation said the impact would not be big for the U.S. because Thailand only imports $1.2 million worth of U.S. beef a year.

A senior presidential official complained that the issue has become volatile because of politics. “The first political factor is that it’s American beef,” he said. “And the second factor is that they are protesting against the Lee Myung-bak administration.”

After the decision to resume U.S. beef imports in 2008, Lee faced a tsunami of anxiety, anger and candlelight vigils across the nation only months into his presidency.

The spokesman also said the widening controversy over mad cow disease and U.S. beef imports is not a matter the president has to address directly. “If the president has to comment on everything, why does the government exist?” he said. “The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will take full responsibility in handling this issue.”

The liberal opposition Democratic United Party and the ruling Saenuri Party’s leader Park Geun-hye have urged the government to halt customs clearance for U.S. beef imports.

Meanwhile, groundless rumors about mad cow disease are spreading. Kang Woo-cheol, head of the Dongjak District of the Unified Progressive Party, said that a radio news program in San Diego reported that Americans don’t have to worry about the disease because the infected cow was for export consumption. He put the assertion in a Twitter posting at 3:09 p.m. Friday afternoon.

After the message prompted thousands of replies, Kang said that he got the information through Facebook from an American acquaintance living in San Diego.

After many more challenges to his assertion, Kang said at 5:26 p.m. Friday that he would not answer any more questions. He said he didn’t know the name of the radio program, but was trying to figure it out.

In 2011, Korea was the fourth-largest importer of U.S. beef after Canada, Mexico and Japan, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

By Ser Myo-ja, Kwon Sang-soo [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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