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Saturday, June 14, 2008

US, South Korean officials meet on beef trade

Foster Klug, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON - The chief trade envoys for the United States and South Korea have launched talks meant to resolve a crisis over the resumption of American beef shipments that has paralyzed South Korea's pro-U.S. government.

The discussions between South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, who flew into Washington on Friday, and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab were expected to continue over the weekend. Kim, speaking briefly to reporters after 2? hours of talks ended Friday night, said he was working to get effective measures to govern the beef trade.

Sean Spicer, spokesman for Schwab, said there was no timetable for the discussions. "We have a lot of issues to work out," Spicer said. "There's no quick fix to this." The South Korean Embassy said Kim's trip was "open-ended."

In Seoul on Friday, about 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of City Hall, the latest of a series of anti-government rallies that have clogged the streets of the capital for more than a month. The entire South Korean Cabinet offered this week to resign to quell public outrage.

The Bush administration has floated one possible solution, saying it supports beef packaging labels that would show the ages of slaughtered cows. Kim has said he wants Washington to approve measures under which the beef industry would agree voluntarily not to ship meat from cattle older than 30 months, even though a recently settled U.S.-South Korean pact would allow such beef. Scientists think infection levels of mad cow disease increase with age.

American beef processors have said they are willing to label beef shipments bound for South Korea. Tyson Foods Inc., JBS Swift & Co., Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., National Beef Packing Co. and Smithfield Beef Group Inc. say the labels would indicate whether beef was from cattle under or over 30 months. In a press release, Tyson said most of the beef shipped by the U.S. processors is from cattle under 30 months.

The Bush administration has said it will not renegotiate the beef deal signed by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President George W. Bush. The accord was supposed to have settled a major irritant in ties between the allies.

South Korea was the third-largest overseas market for U.S. beef until it banned imports after a case of mad cow disease was detected in 2003, the first of three confirmed cases in the United States.

Mad cow disease is the common term for a brain-wasting disease in cattle called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In people, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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