About US beef
“Are we too U.S. beef-sensitive?” was the headline of the main article on the front page of our Monday edition.
What caused me to opt for this reflective headline was a dispatch from our correspondent Jane Han, who sent me an article about American reactions to the latest case of mad cow disease in California. Jane told us that Americans eat steaks as if nothing happened.
I had some mixed feelings.
On one hand, I thought Americans are meat eaters so they can’t help eat beef whether they like it or not.
That made me think ― by this logic, we Koreans are rice-eating people so we are putting our beef-eating hobby on ice for a while. We have not. We turn to “hanwoo,” Korean beef, and beef from Australia and New Zealand.
In other words, we may not be as big meat eaters as Americans but we still can’t help but eat meat.
Or all Americans including Cynthia Hufty, the homemaker quoted in Jane’s article, are patriots who are sacrificing their health to promote American beef globally. Silly (of) me!
Then, my thought went to photos of American beef stands in big retailers in newspapers and on TV news, which were almost deserted with no customer in sight.
I watched a restaurant owner say during a television interview that not a single customer had come to his restaurant that day and he was switching to Australian beef.
That was how we pulled in a kicker, or a small headline under the main one which read, “Mad cow case roils Korea but fazes no Americans.”
A sense of wonder about reactions poles apart as to the mad cow case across the Pacific was included in an editor’s note at the start of our “Are we too …” coverage, which additionally includes Jane’s article, entitled “Americans don’t pass steaks,” and our Cheong Wa Dae correspondent Kang Hyun-kyung’s reflections on the 2008 anti-U.S. beef rallies that almost toppled President Lee Myung-bak.
There can be many explanations why we are (over)reacting as we are.
First, one can claim that we are acting normally under a given set of circumstances. The issue of health hazards can’t be underestimated and after all it is our health at stake.
That is true but it was just one case from probably millions of cattle slaughtered in the United States every year. A detractor would say that Americans are not as thorough in checking their cattle as they should be and point out a small ratio are checked for mad cow disease. These kinds of questions and answers can continue forever without providing a clear-cut solution.
But perhaps the closest thing to this riddle may lie in Kang’s article, titled, “2008 rallies haunt (President) Lee.”
Four years ago, demonstrators ― adults, students and children ― armed with candles in paper cups were encamped for months in Seoul Plaza, the square in front of City Hall. The protests started peacefully but degenerated into a major case of civil disobedience that threatened the Lee administration in its salad days.
The protestors were galvanized into action after rumors and reports helped each other reproduce themselves on a bigger scale. Among them was that Lee agreed to allow the resumption of U.S. beef imports despite health risks for the sake of political convenience.
Everybody else made their contribution to turning 2008 into a cauldron of turmoil.
MBC, one of three major network television stations here, took the issue out of proportion, fanning public fears and helping turn them into an anti-government crusade, irrespective of their intentions. The court found the MBC reports exaggerated and untrue in parts but stopped short of meting out serious punishment for those involved in the program production for the sake of freedom of the press.
In hindsight, the anti-U.S. beef demonstrations were a watershed by which a seed of distrust was irrevocably planted in the public consciousness about the Lee administration. Unfortunately, the administration has never fully recovered.
Lee could have handled the situation better and rallied the people behind him. For all his flaws and faults, I think Lee is underappreciated.
The biggest victim is us ― consumers and ordinary people.
Still haunted by the memories of 2008 and reacting to first reports about the mad cow case, we would stop going to restaurants where U.S. beef is served or butcher’s where U.S. beef is sold. That is the power of memory and it adversely affects us by limiting our scope of choice without adequate grounds.
That was why we were asking Monday not just readers and ourselves at the newsroom, “Are we too U.S.-beef sensitive?”
I lost my chance to ask this question four years ago, being overwhelmed by the force of lopsided public opinion.
Now I ask this question, believing that we have become wiser and more rational than four years ago. So, don’t fall into herd mentality. If it sounds like a U.S. beef promotional slogan, it is not. It is a declaration of individual choice and I want you, together with me, to sign it.