South Korea: Continuing Mad Cow Controversy Over US Beef Imports

Since last week, South Korea has seen continuing protests against importing beef from the United States after mad cow disease broke out in California. The Korean government dispatched its inspection team to the US to quell the public anger incited by the government's unkept promise to halt the beef imports immediately the disease was detected. However, the inspection team's lack of control over the investigation process and the biased member selection process further deepened South Korean's distrust of the government.

South Korea's Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries sent a nine-person inspection team that checked infected cattle and meat packing facilities in the United States right after the disease was detected. They returned only to announce on May 11, 2012, there is no real human health threat posed by American beef and concluded that the country will maintain its quarantine inspections regime on the beef without halting imports, a solution that totally contradicts the government's promise made in 2008. The Korean public responded to this result with heated discussions and criticism online.

One of South Korea's prominent political bloggers IamPeter clarified [ko] the reason for public distrust of the government's version of the story:

원래 광우병 미국 현지 조사단은 정확한 실태 파악을 위해 발병 농장 방문, 사체의 조직 검사 등 모든 의혹을 밝힐 수 있는 조사를 하기로 되어 있었습니다. 그러나 지금 광우병 미국 현지 조사단은 미국 측이 허용하는 장소만 가서 구경만 하고 있습니다. 광우병 발병 현지 목장 방문은 아예 하지도 못했고, 광우병 소의 사체 조직 검사도 미국 측에 의해 좌절됐습니다. 도축장 방문도 수출용이 아닌 내수용 도축장에만 갔다 왔습니다. 결국 광우병 미국 현지 조사단이 했던 일은 아무것도 없습니다. 그저 미국이 보여주는 지정된 코스를 충실하게 견학만 하고 있습니다.

The inspection team was supposed to carry out a thorough inspection including visiting the farm where the disease was detected and having a biopsy on the dead cow in order to dispel every suspicion. However this inspection team merely toured around some places which the US side allowed them to visit. They never even made it close to the farm where the disease broke out and the biopsy was also turned down by the US. And the visit to meatpacking facilities was limited to the domestic facilities and not the one handling beef which will be exported internationally. In summary, the inspection team did nothing. They had a field trip to some spots and stayed on a travel route all planned out by the US.

A brochure of anti US beef import protest planned on May 12 (left). Image shared by twitter user @hudanchu

Sarcastic comments ridiculing the inspection team inundated blogs and the twittersphere. Lee Hyang-ah commented [ko] below a related news article:

세금으로 미국여행 잘하고왓지뭐…자기들이 미국가서 광우병조사한다고하면 아이고 오시느라고 고생많았습니다. 앉아서 커피나 먹으면서 같이 얘기해봅시다. 이럴줄알앗나?? 뭔 뜻으로 조사단을 보냇는지 모르겟다.

They had a quite a good trip to the US with the taxpayer's money. Did they really think the US would welcome them when they came over to inspect for mad cow disease? Did they really think the US would say, “What a trip you had. Come and take a seat over here and discuss this issue over a coffee”? Really? I don't see the reason for dispatching the inspection team.

A net user @555773 tweeted [ko]:

[…]농장에도 방문도 못하고 조사한 결과가 이상이 없다며 검역 강화에만 치중하면서 중단은 하지 않고 국민의 불안감만 안기고 있는 정부를 신뢰할수 없다

They (referring to the mad cow disease inspection team) did not even visit the farm (where the disease broke out). The government is trying so hard to persuade us that US beef is safe and want to focus on continuing the quarantine regime, instead of halting the imports. And this kind of behavior makes South Korean people more anxious and harder to trust the current government even more.

Baek Chan-hong (@mindgood) tweeted [ko]:

헛물만 켜다온 광우병 조사단 “미국산 쇠고기 안전” 결론…그럴거면 이메일로 조사하지.

The dispatched team's inspection was totally useless. And they concluded that US beef is safe. Is this all we can get? Then it could have been better to inspect the case via email.

Another Twitter user @korea486 tweeted [ko]:

광우병 조사단 귀국,미국 쇠고기 이상 없다고 발표했군요! 광우병 조사단? 관광단 유람단 아니였나? 이 이인간들 미국소 먹을까요? 안 먹을까요?

The mad cow disease inspection team returned from the US and announced there is nothing wrong with US beef. Did they just call themselves an inspection team? I thought they were a tour team. What do you think- will they eat US beef in the future?

Cho Neung-hee(@mbcpdcho), a producer at MBC who is also a former chief producer of investigative journalism show “PD Notebooktweeted [ko]:

조사단장을 맡은 주이석 질병방역본부장은 지난 2008년 4월 미국쇠고기 졸속협상시 협상단 실무담당자였다. 2008년 6월에는 PD수첩 제작진을 형사처벌해달라며 대검찰청에 수사의뢰서를 제출하고 관련 진술을 한 사람으로 조사의 객관성과 공정성이 의심된다.

The leader of the inspection team Joo E-suk, also the head of the animal quarantine office, was actually the one who handled the administrative stuff during the US beef import negotiation process back on April 2008. On June 2008, he even requested an investigation of PD Notebook reporters (who covered the danger of the mad cow disease) by the Supreme Prosecutor's Office and indeed testified against us. I highly doubt this investigation's objectivity and fairness.

Some news reports revealed that scientists and scholars who are against the US beef imports were excluded from the team.

The government argues the most recent case in California is a very rare atypical case and the case is unlikely to have caused by animal feed. However, another tweet [ko] by Cho made references to some US officials from the Clinton and Obama administrations who said they cannot verify for the moment whether there is any possible connection between the disease and the animal feed and they can't confirm the origin of this atypical case. Cho added [ko]:

[…] 학자들의이 반론으로 미국정부도 그 원인을 모른다고 후퇴했는데.. 유독 한국 농식품부는 사료가 원인이 아니라고 ‘추정'된다며.. 그러니 안전하다며.. 국민을 설득하려는지 참으로 안타깝군요. 사전예방의 법칙! 어디갔어?

Due to scholars arguments, even the US government have stepped back and acknowledged that they don't know clear reasons for the disease outbreak. But South Korea's Food/Agriculture Department alone ‘assumes’ that the animal feed is not the cause of the problem, so it is safe. It is so pathetic to see them trying hard to persuade Korean people. Where did the rule of “Prevention” (in health policy) go in this country ?

IamPeter added [ko] after his analysis:

“정형 광우병은 없어졌다”고 했는데, 세계동물보건기구(OIE)의 2011년 광우병 통계에는 총 광우병 29건 중 정형 26건, 비정형 3건으로 나와 있습니다. […] 광우병에 대한 과학적인 결론은 100% 진실이 없습니다. 아직 정확하게 규명되지 않은 일들이 많기 때문입니다. 그렇기에 더욱 위험합니다. 과학적으로 규명되지 않았기에 위험하지 않다는 주장은 ‘바다의 깊이를 현재 모른다'라고 말해놓고, ‘그러니 빠져도 괜찮다'라는 말과 다를 바가 없습니다.

The government said that the ‘typical’ disease case has disappeared. But according to OIE's [note: OIE refers to International Office of Epizootics which still known by its French acronym Office International des Epizooties] statistics on mad cow disease in 2011, among the total 29 mad cow disease cases, 26 cases of were ‘typical’ and three were ‘atypical’ cases […] There is no 100 percent verified scientific truth in the mad cow disease controversy yet, since there are lots of parts that need to be proven. That is what makes this situation more dangerous. (The current South Korean government's) logic is, ‘It is not dangerous since the risk of the disease has not yet been scientifically proven’. To me it seems like saying, “We don't know the depth of the ocean yet, so it is okay to fall into it”.

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