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Korean grocers suspend U.S. beef sales

04/25/2012 @ 8:27am

Two major South Korean retailers pulled American beef from their shelves Wednesday, reacting swiftly to reports of mad-cow disease and hoping to avoid customer protests.

Korea's government said it will continue to import U.S. beef but increase inspection at ports of entry.

In a statement, Korea's agriculture ministry said it would seek details about the reported case of mad-cow disease in a California dairy cow, which would be the first such incidence in U.S. livestock since 2006.

Two of Korea's largest grocery chains, Lotte Group's Lotte Mart chain and Tesco Corp.'s (TESO) HomePlus, announced they had removed U.S. beef from their stores.

Mad-cow disease, which can cause fatal illness in those who eat infected cattle products, is a particularly sensitive issue in Korea's trade relationship with the U.S.

Koreans for three months in 2008 protested the government's decision to resume imports of U.S. beef that were blocked in 2003 after a case of mad-cow disease was reported in Washington state.

The protests ended after Korean officials restricted purchases to meat from cattle under 30 months old, which are less vulnerable to contracting the disease.

Consumption of U.S. beef in Korea rose rapidly after the ban was lifted, and it now accounts for about 40% of beef imports. But Korea still purchases less beef from the U.S. than it did before the 2003 restriction.

The political and emotional impact of the 2008 protests, which sometimes drew tens of thousands of people to a plaza in central Seoul, has lingered. In the weeks after the ban was lifted, some farmers and others staged surprise protests inside grocery stores, ripping open packages of U.S. beef and preventing consumers from buying it.

Opposition politicians at the time used the issue to portray President Lee Myung-bak, who was then newly in office, as too willing to do what the U.S. wanted. In response to the protests, Mr. Lee replaced several members of his cabinet and scrapped an ambitious agenda for economic reform.

The protests also led Korea to improve animal health inspection. Starting that year, the government began to randomly test 15,000 to 20,000 cattle annually for mad-cow disease. No cases have been reported through such tests.

-By Evan Ramstad, The Wall Street Journal; evan.ramstad@wsj.com
--Soo-ah Shin contributed to this report.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 25, 2012 04:08 ET (08:08 GMT)
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