South Korea will likely allow the resumption of US beef imports next month despite public calls to re-negotiate a deal with the US an agriculture ministry official said yesterday.
South Korea agreed last month to open its market wider to US beef imports, soothing a major trade dispute on the eve of a summit between the two countries’ leaders.
But opposition parties and civic groups have called for the deal to be scrapped or at least re-negotiated.
“New US beef shipments will probably come early next month,” an agriculture ministry spokesman said.
He declined to confirm a Yonhap news agency report that the government would this month release 4,808 tonnes of US beef held in storage since last October after the discovery of banned materials in a shipment.
Seoul banned all US beef in 2003 due to fears of mad cow disease. It eased the ban in 2006 but still excluded bone-in beef and other items.
It will now allow the import of most cuts of beef, including ribs that were previously banned, from cattle aged under 30 months. Imports from older cattle would be allowed when the US applies stricter controls on protein-based feed feared to cause mad cow disease.
South Korea was once the third-largest market for US beef, with imports worth US$850 million a year before the 2003 ban.
US legislators had warned they would not pass a separate free trade pact until beef trade was freed up. Congressional ratification of the trade deal is still uncertain.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has led a state campaign to allay public furor, saying US beef is safe.
But farmers and liberal groups have accused Lee of risking the health of the public. Around 10,000 people staged a candlelight protest in downtown Seoul over the weekend.