South Korean retailers halt sales of US beef

2012-04-25 12:11

Two major South Korean retailers suspended sales of US beef following the discovery of mad cow disease in a US dairy cow.

Reaction elsewhere in Asia was muted with Japan saying there’s no reason to restrict imports.

South Korea’s second and third-largest supermarket chains, Home Plus and Lotte Mart, said they had “temporarily” halted sales of US beef to calm worries among South Koreans today.

“We stopped sales from today,” said a Lotte Mart spokesperson. “Not that there were any quality issues in the meat but because consumers were worried.”

South Korea is the world’s fourth-largest importer of US beef, buying 107 000 tons of the meat worth $563 million (R1.2 billion) in 2011.

The new case of mad cow disease is the first in the US since 2006. It was discovered in a dairy cow in California, but health authorities yesterday said the animal was never a threat to the nation’s food supply.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is fatal to cows and can cause a deadly human brain disease in people who eat tainted beef.

US authorities said the California cow has what scientists call an atypical case of BSE, meaning that a random mutation in the animal rather than infected cattle feed was the cause.

The infected cow, the fourth ever discovered in the US, was found as part of an Agriculture Department surveillance program that tests about 40 000 cows a year for the disease.

The news spread quickly in South Korea, which imposed a ban on US beef in 2003 along with China and other countries because of mad cow disease concerns.

Seoul’s resumption of US beef imports in 2008 sparked daily candlelight vigils and street protests for several months as many South Koreans still regarded the meat as a public health risk.

“We plan to take necessary measures and will continue monitoring the situation,” South Korea’s agriculture ministry said in a statement. It said there was no direct link between US beef imported into South Korea and the infected animal.

In Japan, officials said the country’s import policy was unchanged.

Japan, the world’s third-largest consumer of US beef and veal, restricts its imports of US beef to cows of 20 months or younger. The infected cow found in the US was older than 30 months.

“There is no need for change,” in Japan’s import rules, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters.

But the latest mad cow case may jeopardise moves to expand American beef sales in Taiwan, where the government recently sparked protests by allowing sales of US beef containing ractopamine, a growth additive.

Taiwan’s legislature today indefinitely postponed a planned discussion on US beef imports. It is likely the government engineered the delay, fearing that the opposition would stoke sentiment against US beef.

There was no immediate response from China.

Beijing no longer has an outright ban on US beef but exporters have been unable to overcome continued barriers involving inspection of the meat.

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