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The Wall Street Journal reports that US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez met with South Korean officials last week to attempt to ameliorate continuing concerns that US beef is unsafe to eat – a position that South Korea has taken since 2003, when a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was discovered in the US.

While more than 60 other countries banned and then eventually permitted the import of US beef, South Korea is one of those that has not lifted the ban…though that nation's president, Lee Myung-bak, announced last month that its borders would be reopened to US beef imports. In part, reports say, the decision was made because the US was holding up approval of free trade pacts.

However, according to the Journal, "about two weeks after Mr. Lee made the deal, some Korean television stations and political activists began to allege that U.S. beef isn't safe, isn't eaten by Americans, and that South Korea wouldn't be able to halt imports if mad-cow disease occurred again in the U.S.

"Mass demonstrations followed, Mr. Lee's popularity plunged and the opposition party threatened to block the free-trade deal in the South Korean parliament.

"On Wednesday, the South Korean agriculture ministry delayed issuing the formal legal notice needed to restart imports, giving the Lee administration a new chance to make its case to the public."

KC's View:
Which is why the Bush administration sent Gutierrez to South Korea to try to salvage a deteriorating situation that seems to be more about politics than science.

At the risk of being accused of beating a dead cow, I would simply point out that expanded testing – even by private companies – and greater transparency would go a long way to solving these sorts of problems. But it probably seems easier to simply fight the issue on a case-by-case basis, send envoys to the other side of the planet, and engage the situation politically rather than scientifically.