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Mar 2, 2005
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SEOUL, Mar 21, 2005 (AsiaPulse via COMTEX) -- The South Korean government and civic groups are pushing for stricter systems for identifying the origin of beef sold at restaurants, a move aimed at better insulating the domestic livestock market from overseas outbreaks of meat-related diseases, experts said Monday.

The action comes amid growing U.S. demands for the lifting of Seoul's import ban on American beef. South Korea banned U.S. beef imports after a case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was reported in the American state of Washington in December 2003.

"South Koreans are very sensitive to reports of meat-related disease as they are getting more conscious of health," said Kim Chang-seob, chief veterinary officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Such public reaction has had considerable impact on duck, chicken, pig and cattle farmers in the past and exerted a negative influence on the whole economy, he said.

To ease public concerns, the government has made it mandatory to list the origin of meat sold at retail outlets like butcher shops and department stores. Since 2000, it has also been pushing for a law that will extend this requirement to restaurants, with President Roh Moo-hyun endorsing the measure early this year.

But the initiative has been put on hold due to opposition from lawmakers who fear that such a move will hurt the restaurant business, which is already struggling to overcome weak domestic consumption.

"There are no official figures, but it can be said that only about 10 percent of beef sold in the Seoul area are from 'hanwoo' cattle, with the rest being imports and those from milk cows," said a government official.

Hanwoo, a Korean breed of cattle raised for meat, normally sells for twice the price of imported beef, and because of local preferences many restaurants sell other beef as hanwoo.

Forcing restaurants to adopt the same kind of identification system implemented by retailers has raised concerns of a trade dispute since restaurants consume the bulk of imported beef.

U.S. and other exporters call the labeling of beef sold at restaurants as a "non-trade barrier" since they believe it could put their beef at a disadvantage.

The Agriculture Ministry and the Korea Consumer Protection Board said worries about a trade dispute are unfounded since the World Trade Organization supports the right of consumers to know what they buy or eat and backs measures to prevent inaccurate labeling that can distort the market. They said that as long as both domestic and imported meat are subject to the same kind of labeling rules and equal opportunity in the market is not at risk, such actions will not cause problems.

Experts and officials advocating an expansion of the labeling system or disclosure of meat's place-of-origin also argued that raising transparency helps South Korean growers as well as foreign imports since a meat-related disease here will have little effect on imports if consumers trust the labeling and tracking rules.

Efforts are being made to develop DNA screening techniques and measures have already been taken to introduce a so-called brand identity (BI) mark for beef, part of a broader plan to introduce a full tracking system in the market by 2009, they said. The BI could be expanded to other meat products.

The tracking system refers to a database of meat sold on the market that allows consumers to easily check details on the breed, birth, gender, growth,feed, and butchering of cattle. The system also covers processing ,shipping ,and sales.

"Restaurants may experience a drop in sales, but in the long run enhanced consumer confidence will be good for business," said Seo Jung-hee, a technical expert at the Korea Consumer Protection Board.

The Koeran tracking system B1 refers to a database of meat from cattle sold on the market that allows consumers to easily check details on the breed, birth, gender, growth,feed, and butchering of cattle. The system also covers processing ,shipping ,and sales. JAPAN and KOERA are running right along side the EU when it comes to transparency.

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