What's the Beef with U.S. Beef? The decision to resume importing American beef into South Korea has led to huge protests in Seoul over concerns about food safety. The European Union, Japan and other nations have also raised objections to U.S. agricultural products.
NPR logo What's the Beef with U.S. Beef?

What's the Beef with U.S. Beef?

Top U.S. Beef Markets Abroad

This year, the U.S. has exported beef to 88 countries, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The top four foreign markets are:

  • Mexico
  • Canada
  • Japan
  • Vietnam

South Korean protests over their government's decision to allow American beef back into the country escalated on Tuesday, with tens of thousands of demonstrators flooding the streets of the capital city of Seoul. Just a day earlier, in Washington, D.C., a senior group of diplomats from the South Korean agriculture ministry met with the United States Department of Agriculture to voice their concerns about U.S. beef.

South Korea was the world's third-largest importer of U.S. beef before it banned it over mad cow fears five years ago.

Before December 2003, annual beef imports to South Korea from the U.S. totaled $815 million. If beef imports are reinstated, the market there could grow to a $1 billion business — making it the largest consumer of U.S. beef, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Here, a look at the uproar in South Korea and the objections there — and elsewhere — to U.S. meat imports.

Why was U.S. beef originally banned in South Korea?

In 2003, a cow in Washington state that had been imported from Canada, was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — better known as mad cow disease. This spurred a number of countries, including South Korea, to ban imports of U.S. beef. Most — but not all — countries have since reestablished trade.

Why did South Korea decide to lift the ban this year?

In April, during his first official summit with President Bush, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak finalized a deal that would have eventually allowed a full range of U.S. beef to be shipped to South Korea. The deal was aimed at achieving a broader South Korean goal: a sweeping free-trade agreement with the U.S. Several U.S. lawmakers said they wouldn't approve the trade pact unless South Korea first reinstated U.S. beef imports.

Why has the decision to restart U.S. beef imports sparked such outrage?

Many South Koreans felt the deal failed to do enough to ensure food safety. But underlying the widespread protests is South Korean frustration with President Lee, a former businessman elected on a promise to pump up the Korean economy.

"Lee has behaved too much like a chairman of the board, acting imperiously and with little regard for pubic opinion on a number of issues, the most prominent of which has been the U.S. beef-import decision," writes Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, a political economy fellow for the Brookings Institution. On Wednesday, all members of Lee's Cabinet offered to resign in response to the mass demonstrations. Lee has not said whether he plans to accept their resignations.

What steps will the U.S. take to assure South Korea that American beef and other agricultural exports are safe?

U.S. agricultural officials say they stand by the safety of American beef. Keith Williams, a spokesman for the USDA, says federal inspectors are a fixture in meat plants in the U.S., examining daily operations as mandated by law. "Meat plants cannot operate unless there are U.S. inspectors right there in the plant," he says.

The World Organization for Animal Health has classified the U.S. as a "controlled risk nation" when it comes to mad cow disease — a designation that means a country has effective safeguards in place to ensure the safety of the meats it exports, according to the USDA's Web site.

Joe Schuele, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says, "We have all the control measures in place and have taken all the appropriate actions that we can take to control and eradicate the disease."

There have been three confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States. The first case, in December 2003, involved a cow that had been imported from Canada to Washington. The second and third cases involved cows native to the U.S.; these occurred in Texas in June 2005, and in Alabama in March 2006, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Are there objections to U.S. meats in other foreign countries?

Yes. The European Union has a ban on beef raised with the use of hormones, which effectively bars most U.S. beef imports. U.S. beef that can be certified as hormone-free is allowed. In addition, the EU blocks imports of U.S. pork produced with a growth hormone. Since 1997, U.S. poultry treated with chlorine and other chemicals has also been banned. The annual loss in poultry revenue is approximately $220 million, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service U.S. Mission to the European Union.

"It's been a long and tortuous process that USDA has embarked on to try and reopen those markets," says Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, a consumer safety group.

Japan has also banned imports of U.S. beef from cattle older than 21 months. The U.S., however, is negotiating to raise that limit to 30 months, Corbo says. Mad cow has rarely been detected in animals younger than 21 months, so many countries feel mad cow disease will not be a problem in animals younger than that. The United States' safety standards regard animals younger than 30 months as safe for consumption, since the number of cases in animals up to 30 months in age is still extremely small.

How do these objections affect the global market for U.S. beef?

U.S. beef exports have dropped from close to 10 percent of beef produced in 2003 — before the mad cow scare — to 6 percent today. In the first quarter of 2008, the U.S. exported 435 million pounds of beef, totaling $683 million, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

With additional reporting by NPR's Joe Palca.

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