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Japan, Korea halt US beef imports
( 2003-12-24 13:41) (Agencies)

Japan and South Korea, the two top buyers of U.S. beef, suspended imports Wednesday after the United States reported its first case of the deadly mad cow disease, triggering fears humans could become infected.

Singapore also said it was suspending imports of U.S. beef, while other key Asia buyers such as China had yet to comment.

Imported U.S. beef is displayed at a supermarket in Inchon, west of Seoul, Dec. 24, 2003. Japan and South Korea, the two top buyers of U.S. beef, suspended imports Wednesday after the United States reported its first case of the deadly mad cow disease, triggering fears humans could become infected.  [Reuters]
Alarm over the brain-wasting disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, which wreaked havoc in Europe in the 1990s, drove down share prices of fast-food companies and raised consumer concerns about food safety.

News of the U.S. finding sent a shock wave through the Japanese food industry, which relies on America for about 50 per cent of its total beef imports, prompting buyers to scramble for alternative supply sources.

In South Korea, which is already battling a bird flu outbreak affecting chickens and ducks, shares in major fisheries and sea food companies shot up by their daily permissible gain of 15 percent.

Traders said Asian beef-buying nations may be forced to look at imports from Australia.

Officials at Japan's Agriculture Ministry said the quarantine offices had temporarily stopped issuing import certificates for U.S. beef products.

South Korea said the suspension covered quarantine inspection and retail sales of meat, bone and intestines of U.S. cattle and other ruminants.

"The suspensions are all temporary, pending confirmation of the disease in the animal in Washington state," the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. meat industry said there was very little risk to supplies to Japan and South Korea.

Mad cow disease has never been found in the United States before but neighboring Canada suffered a BSE outbreak in May that has damaged its beef industry, one of the world's largest.

People can contract a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease known as vCJD from eating beef products infected by BSE such as diseased brain or spinal column material.

At least 137 people have died of vCJD, all linked to eating beef or to having received blood or tissue transplants from vCJD patients.

Both Japan and South Korea banned imports of beef products from Canada earlier this year after news of the outbreak there, its first in a decade.


Taiwan agriculture officials were meeting to evaluate whether to ban imports of U.S. beef. The United States supplied about a fifth of all beef imported by Taiwan between January and October.

An Indonesian Agriculture Ministry official said the government awaited confirmation from the Office International des Epizooties or World Organization for Animal Health.

Thailand said it was likely to suspend U.S. beef imports.

Japan's beef imports from Australia are likely to jump to replace U.S. beef, but trade sources said the country will face tight supply and consumer price hikes for beef.

Japan imported about 534,000 tonnes of beef in the fiscal year that ended in March, including 240,000 tonnes from the United States and 262,000 tonnes from Australia.

South Korea's Agriculture Ministry said imports of U.S. beef through November reached 187,000 tonnes, or about 68 per cent of beef imports. The country also imported 753 live cows from the United States in October, the ministry said.

"It's unfortunate that bans have been imposed by South Korea and Japan but we are going to work hard to show the authorities that our beef supplies to these countries are safe," Joel Haggard, vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, told Reuters.

Marinated beef and beef ribs are among South Korea's most popular dishes. Young urban South Koreans have also embraced big Western fast-food hamburger chains such as McDonald's.

The beef alert in South Korea came as it struggled to contain the spread of highly contagious bird flu that has attacked the country's poultry sector and scared off consumers.

Avian influenza -- which in rare cases can be deadly to humans -- had been confirmed at eight farms since authorities documented the first bird flu case among chickens on December 15.

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