South Korea has submitted its views on the mad cow risk assessment report that will be formally released by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in late May, the government said Tuesday.
Experts from the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service have carefully cross-checked findings made by the global body since March 12.
The OIE is expected to give the United States "controlled mad cow risk country" status. The country has reported three cases of the deadly disease since late 2003, prompting Seoul to ban beef imports.
Concerns over the disease, reportedly fatal to humans, has taken on new importance since Washington made it clear that it will not officially sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea until Seoul takes steps to guarantee full access to its beef market.
South Korea said it will examine U.S. beef safety independently, regardless of the OIE's recommendations. The process may take several months to an year.
A controlled risk country recommendation can technically allow the United States to export most meat parts, including bone-in beef like ribs that do not contain any specified risk materials (SRMs). SRMs, which pose the greatest risk of transmitting the disease to humans, include head bones, brains, vertebral columns, spinal cords, dorsal root ganglions and certain internal organs.
In addition to the United States, the OIE has classified Canada as a controlled mad cow risk country.
Without going into details on what comments Seoul sent to the OIE, officials at the quarantine service and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said that the United States is being asked to submit future measures that will prevent animal protein-based feed from being used on cattle. Feed using cattle parts and other animals has been cited as the possible cause of the disease.
They said the OIE gave passing grades on U.S. abilities to detect, confirm and report suspected mad cow cases.
The agriculture ministry, which is careful about fully opening the local market to U.S. beef, has stressed that recommendations by the OIE need not be followed, since the World Trade Organization allows for tougher inspections if such a claim can be backed by scientific concerns.
"Because of the different way South Koreans eat meat and cook meat-related products like bones, there is some leeway to reflect our views," a ministry official said.
Despite such a cautious approach, other government officials have publicly alluded to moving forward quickly to set new guidelines that will permit greater access to U.S. beef.
Lee Hye-min, Seoul's deputy negotiator at the FTA talks, said once the OIE gives the U.S. controlled risk country status, Seoul will open talks on the import of bone-in beef.
Others in the foreign ministry said that bone-in beef may reach the domestic market as early as July if all goes well.
"When South Korea and the United States agreed to import boneless beef from cattle under 30 months old in January 2006, it took about a year to go through the details," said an official, who declined to be identified. He said this time around, a decision may be reached in two or three months.
Seoul, April 10 (Yonhap News)