Seeds of trouble were sown three years ago
Korean agricultural officials are in a pretty fix now.
Since 2007, Canada has been pressing Korea to resume imports of its beef products, bilaterally and multilaterally at the World Trade Organization.
The North American country has seen 18 breakouts of mad cow disease since 2003, more than two cases a year on average, with the latest one occurring early this year. Still Canada, like the United States, has been given a positive controlled-risk status by the World Organization for Animal Health. Seoul seems to have few good reasons to discriminate against Canadian beef vis-à-vis American products.
Korea has been importing U.S. beef less than 30 months old since 2008 with strict restrictions on so-called specified risk materials (SRM), referring to byproducts such as internal organs. Seoul is pushing to more easily trace the life records of imported beef and automatically suspend quarantine procedures if another mad cow disease breaks out in Canada. Ottawa is resisting the suspension clause for fear of frequent interruption of shipments.
Seoul’s’ cautiousness is more than justifiable considering the importance of public health and sovereignty of inspection.
The problem is the member countries of the WTO’s dispute settlement panel, mostly beef exporters, are for Canada’s position that the breakout of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) need not necessarily halt foreign sales as long as exporters take sufficient care not to include infected meat in outbound shipments. If Korea loses the trade battle, it should open wide the domestic beef market to other exporters such as European and Latin American countries. This is why Seoul has asked the panel to delay the issuance of an interim report to gain time and settle the disputes in bilateral talks.
Even if the nation manages to bring negotiations back to one-on-one and settle it, it would be just a matter of time before other beef exporters file similar complaints and demand equal treatment.
When the ``candlelit protest” swept the country three years ago against the Lee Myung-bak administration’s hurried _ and hushed _ beef import deal with the United States, we worried this would not stop with the U.S. Unfortunately, but inevitably, the concerns have turned into a reality.
Some conservative media outlets, which criticized their progressive colleagues for instigating the public by spreading exaggerated fears about health at the time, are reiterating their accusation, citing Korea has emerged as the largest importer of U.S. beef. President Lee, who apologized not once but twice for neglecting the people’s will, recently asked why none of the protesters and critics have come forth to reflect on their reckless behavior. The politicized prosecution has even been on a belated hunt for protesters, including housewives and students.
But even the U.S. exporters have acknowledged the import surge is attributable to an unprecedented foot-and-mouth disease here, which could have been prevented or at least reduced had the government concentrated its energy instead of chasing demonstrators from three years ago.
Beef vendors say most housewives still shun U.S. products, most of which are bought up by mess halls and other commercial consumers, indicating they have a long way to go before restoring consumers’ trust.
Still U.S. agricultural officials are pledging to step up a trade offensive to make Korea import beef produced from older cattle, which, if proved successful, would soon prompt other exporters to follow America’s initiative, turning Korea into an arena of risky beef products from all over the world.
Pro-government media say trade-dependent Korea can ill afford to give the image of being a beef protectionist. But are Japan and Taiwan, which still limit U.S. beef imports to cattle less than 20 months old, any less dependent on trade than Korea? Why does Australia ban imports of Canadian beef?
All this is a matter of how much respect governments have in their people and their welfare. Mad cow disease’s incubation period is not years but decades. Officials should have their fingers crossed that the much-trumpeted, and equally doubted, economic benefits of Korea-U.S. free agreement will materialize before the first outbreak of BSE here.