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2008/06/09 17:10 KST
(LEAD) Vice farm minister to visit U.S. to discuss beef issue

   SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's vice agriculture minister will visit the United States to discuss measures to follow up on talks between the presidents of the two countries on beef import issues, a government official said Monday.

   Kim Hyeong-soo, spokesman for the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said Park Deok-bae will lead a four-man delegation for the talks with his U.S. counterpart. The team is to depart later in the day but no date has been given for its return.

   Park is to be accompanied by Choe Jong-hyun, director general of regional trade at the Foreign Ministry, and Kim Chang-seob, the Agriculture Ministry's chief veterinary officer.

   "The talks are aimed at effectively following up on the phone conversation between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President George W. Bush," Kim said.

   The spokesman, however, declined to provide further details about the content of the upcoming discussions or specify which government officials the South Korean delegates will meet. He also said that the delegation is not part of the team led by senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security Kim Byung-guk and lawmakers from the ruling Grand National Party.

   In the talks held Saturday night, Lee asked Bush to take substantial, reliable and effective measures to prevent the export of U.S. beef from cattle over 30 months old. In response, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said, Bush expressed understanding of the concerns expressed by South Koreans and pledged to take concrete measures to make certain that beef from older animals is not exported to South Korea.

   The Lee administration, which took power on Feb. 25, has come under intense criticism for signing the April 18 import deal that permits imports of most U.S. beef cuts without age restrictions.

   If the deal is implemented, it would replace a similar pact reached in early 2006 that only permits boneless beef imports from cattle under 30 months old.

   The 30-month limit is important because most cows that have come down with mad cow disease, which can be transmitted to humans, were older animals.

   After putting off implementation twice last month, Seoul announced last Tuesday that it will not open the local market until an understanding can be reached on preventing imports of U.S. beef from older animals.

   Because the government stance does not include renegotiation of the April pact, it is pushing for voluntary measures by both exporters and importers to limit exports and imports of beef from cattle over 30 months old.

   After banning all U.S. beef imports in late 2003 as a result of the discovery of a case of the disease in the state of Washington, Seoul allowed U.S. beef into the country in April 2007. However, it halted all quarantine inspections in early October following the discovery of banned materials in two packages.

   As for the voluntary measures being pursued by South Korea, local beef importers asked the government to get Washington to sign a guarantee to prevent meat exporters from shipping meat from older animals.

   "In addition to the declaration by meat exporters like Tyson Food Inc. and Cargill Inc., there is a need to get the U.S. government to assure importers that the age of the source of the beef is placed on the packages," said Park Chang-kyu, head of a new group tentatively called the Korea Meat Import Association.

   He said many U.S. meat packers that have been authorized to export beef to South Korea have agreed to label their packages with the age of the cattle.