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The Real Beef in Korean Trade Talks

By Froma Harrop

The high-class explanation for the South Korean riots against U.S. beef is protectionism. The low-class explanation is anti-Americanism.

But a third view -- that South Koreans are justified in slamming the safety of American beef -- has no class at all. That educated people subscribe to such libel does not dignify it.

Let's back up.

South Korea once was the third-biggest foreign market for U.S. beef. After a single American cow was found infected with mad-cow disease in 2003, it banned all American beef. The embargo was partly lifted in 2006 but clanked down again last October after bone chips were found in three shipments. (They are not supposed to be there but pose virtually no danger to consumers.)

Americans negotiating a free-trade agreement with South Korea had been demanding a fully open market for U.S. beef. When South Korea agreed to that in April, the streets of Seoul erupted in violent protests against "unsafe" American beef.

With 80,000 rioters going crazy and venting their rage also at him, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak apologized to his people for accepting the deal. He then asked Washington to limit U.S. beef exports to meat from cows no older than 30 months.

Why 30 months? No logical reason. It's understood that mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) occurs mainly in older animals. But 30 months has become "a magic number with no specific scientific validation," Dean Cliver, professor emeritus of food safety at the University of California-Davis, told me.

After Britain suffered the most serious outbreak of mad-cow disease, it banned eating cattle older than 30 months. But now that the crisis is over, even Britain has rescinded the over-30-month rule.

Here is the link between mad-cow disease and human illness: People who eat certain parts of a BSE-infected cow -- mainly brains and spinal cords -- can develop a horrible brain-wasting ailment, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). An outbreak of 190 such cases in Europe during the '90s caused major panic.

Do you know how many people have contracted vCJD from eating American cows? Zero. That's due to the paucity of mad cows to begin with and that Americans don't eat cow brains and spinal cords. (Europeans put them in meat pies.) A human can eat the muscle meat of a mad cow and not get sick.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (part of the Harvard School of Public Health) started studying the dangers of mad cow disease to the American public in 1999. Five years later, then-Director George Gray told me that "the risks are very, very low, and the government is taking steps that are making low risks lower."

Ludicrous safety standards are a non-tariff form of protectionism. They are easily identified because few other countries impose them.

"The animals over which the Koreans are rioting are food to Americans," Cliver remarked.

American commentators who treat the protests as a response to valid health concerns don't quite get it.

In a recent column titled, "Bad Cow Disease," the usually admirable Paul Krugman invokes "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's 1906 expose on the American meatpacking industry. Citing the South Korean demonstrations, Krugman asks, "How did America find itself back in The Jungle"?

Well, it didn't. America has found itself in one of South Korea's periodic anti-American tantrums -- and efforts to make free trade a one-way deal. Korea wants free rein to flood our market with its cars.

We now hear that American negotiators may comply with South Korean demands not to send beef from cattle older than 30 months. Whether that stops the anti-American riots remains to be seen. Longtime observers seem to doubt it.

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