One-Sided Concession Ignores Public Health
Korea's resumption of U.S. beef imports, a pending economic issue of mounting concern, will likely be settled by this weekend.
Or the conclusion has already been reached and negotiators from the two governments might just be discussing how to make the tough deal more digestible for the Korean public. At least this is the impression one gets from the comments of many officials and media outlets here, who say in union that the beef import issue should not pose a ``stumbling block'' for the ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement or the Lee-Bush summit that will discuss the matter.
The U.S. officials are reportedly pressing hard on their Korean counterparts to tear down almost all barriers to beef imports. Their biggest weapon is a recommendation of the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE in its Spanish acronym, which allows in principle beef exports without restrictions by the cattle's age and parts for countries that control the risks of mad cow disease. The United States won the so-called risk-controlled status last May.
Moreover, the OIE ruling exempted exporters from the obligation to remove such special risk materials as brains and backbones as long as they come from cattle younger than 30 months.
What makes the OIE's ``recommendation'' written as just ``in principle'' all the more scary is Koreans' unusual vulnerability to this brain-wasting disease because of their genetic weakness and dietary pattern. This might matter little for the U.S. officials as just the special circumstances of an importer, but it should be an issue of very grave concern for their Korean counterparts.
As we have often stressed, at stake is not the international agency's clean bill of health but the loose U.S. food safety systems, including meat inspections, which was demonstrated by the frequent inclusion of bone parts in their Korea-bound shipments.
It was less than two months ago that Westland/Hallmark Meat Company made the largest recall of meat in American history, following the release of a pitiful video footage of sick cows being abused on their way to a slaughter house.
A recent survey has found up to 87 percent of Korean housewives living in metropolises think that U.S. beef is ``unsafe." The deep distrust is only too natural, as the U.S. exporters have repeatedly failed to rectify their mistakes. Recently, Washington even reportedly called for Seoul to stop taking issue with its inspection problems.
In short, the U.S. officials opted to beef up pressure instead of trying to amend their problems and earn the trust of Korean consumers. Seoul's anxiety to put the bilateral FTA into effect and ensure the success of the new President's first summit must have been too palpable to the U.S. eyes or anyone else's for that matter.
Washington is urged to come up with more thorough systems on banning animal feeds, tracing the cattle's place of origin and perfecting inspection systems, as it should have done on locally-produced meat, before prying wider open the market in Korea, the third largest importer.
One more word on the FTA: While the U.S. government and lawmakers have scrutinized it and applied pressure to rewrite the beef and auto industry segments, their Korean counterparts have been mired in two election battles and other political dogfighting.