Behind South Koreans' Worries About U.S. Beef

They distrust U.S. safety standards—and they eat more of the cow.

South Korean protesters march with a mockup symbolizing "US mad-cow" during a rally against US beef imports in Seoul on June 7, 2008. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak insisted he would not re-negotiate a deal on US beef imports that has triggered the biggest crisis yet to face his young administration.

South Korean protesters march with a mockup symbolizing "US mad-cow" during a rally against US beef imports in Seoul.

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South Koreans appear to be deeply concerned, if not terrified, about U.S. beef. In April, the country's president, Lee Myung-bak, lifted a ban against U.S. beef that had been imposed in 2003 amid concerns over the possible spread of mad cow disease. Lee was hoping to win points with the U.S. government by reopening the country's market, but the move has quickly backfired at home. In recent weeks, the country has seen anti-U.S.-beef and antigovernment rallies occur almost daily.

But why the size and intensity of the protests? To be sure, American beef is not risk free: The massive recall of more than 150 million pounds of beef from a California meatpacking plant in February made that point clear. Nevertheless, most Americans still eat beef, and in the past five years, out of the hundreds of thousands of cows inspected by the U.S. government, there have been just three positive cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease.

Yet much of the world, South Korea included, remains skeptical. In 2004, after the first U.S. case of BSE became public, more than 50 countries imposed bans or restrictions on American beef. Many countries have since removed or relaxed these restrictions, but winning concessions has taken careful, often tedious negotiations between the United States and its trading partners. Japan, for example, reopened its market to the United States in 2005, then closed it again, then reopened it in 2006. Even today, consumers in Asia accustomed to more rigorous inspection policies at home remain suspicious of U.S. safety standards. Japan says that it performed BSE inspections on all of its 1 million-plus cattle in 2003. The United States, by contrast, tests about 10 percent of its cattle, according to recent estimates.

In Korea, concerns about safety have added importance because of diet. Unlike American beef consumers, who eat relatively few parts of the cow, Koreans are less wasteful, and their culinary habits may expose them to greater risks. "Koreans are big soup eaters," says Haesook Chae, an associate professor of political science at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, "and they cook all kinds of soup using oxtail and bones from the cow." Oxtail meat—the meat from the tail—can sometimes contain neural tissue, which has a higher risk of containing BSE.

Existing concerns about beef, in turn, have been fanned by a number of sources, many of them vocal and some self-serving. According to reports, a popular South Korean news program—the equivalent of ABC's 20/20 or CBS's 60 Minutes—recently aired a segment on U.S. beef in which it claimed, among other things, that South Koreans have a greater genetic risk of mad cow disease. Korean television reports show a similar level of preoccupation. One clip, which lasts about 15 minutes, features the headline of a recent article from CNN's website—"Lawmaker: Nation's Food System Is Collapsing"—and shows video of U.S. cattle being abused and prodded by forklifts (the same video that prompted last February's recall). In the background, an American woman's voice can be heard: "We don't want to find it, so we don't look very hard."

Political maneuvering—and politics in general—also deserve much of the blame for the protests. Observers say that the president's opponents have been keen to use the beef issue as a way to rally support for their side and against Lee, who took power in February after winning an overwhelming victory against his more liberal opponent. "Expectations were much higher for this government than for previous ones," says University of British Columbia Prof. Kyung-Ae Park. A former Hyundai executive, Lee promised during his campaign to address a faltering economy and high inflation, and he pledged to promote business and ensure prompt passage of a stalled $20 billion trade deal with the United States. Indeed, in April, when Lee lifted South Korea's ban on U.S. beef, he was hoping to win favor with the U.S. Congress, which still must ratify the trade deal.