South Korea's government announced Thursday it is going ahead with a much-criticized deal to resume imports of U.S. beef — a move that could escalate the daily street protests against the plan.
Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun said in a nationally televised announcement that the government has finalized new quarantine regulations for U.S. beef in accordance with an April 18 agreement with Washington.
The new regulations call for South Korea to import nearly all cuts of American beef without restrictions on the age of the cattle. That represents a significant easing of previous rules, which banned imports of meat attached to bones or from older cattle considered more susceptible to mad cow disease.
The relaxed rules will take effect as soon as they are published in a government journal in a few days.
Thursday's announcement, which had been delayed amid anti-government protests, was the final administrative step necessary to resume U.S. beef imports.
It cleared the way for American beef to return to South Korean store shelves for the first time since last year, when limited imports were briefly allowed before again being suspended.
Some 5,300 tons of U.S. beef, shipped earlier to South Korea but held in customs and quarantine storage facilities, will begin undergoing inspections early next week before being put on the market, according to the ministry.
Chung sought to dispel public concern over mad cow disease, saying the government would immediately halt imports if a new case of the illness breaks out in the United States, and would strictly control cattle parts banned over the disease.
"The government will protect the people's heath and food safety by thoroughly managing the inspection and distribution of U.S. beef," he said.
Still, the announcement is likely to intensify anti-government rallies in Seoul, which have been held on a near-daily basis in recent weeks to protest the agreement. Protesters believe the accord does not adequately protect the country from infected beef.
A small group of protesters staged a rally Thursday outside the government building where the announcement was made. Police estimated some 10,000 protesters would gather Thursday night in central Seoul for a rally.
Under the deal, South Korea pledged to scrap nearly all the quarantine restrictions imposed by the previous government to guard against mad cow disease. South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef after the first American case of mad cow disease appeared in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state. Two subsequent cases were also discovered.
Several efforts to resume imports foundered after banned substances such as bones were discovered in shipments from the U.S.
Protesters accuse the government of ignoring their concerns about food safety. Worries about mad cow disease have been fanned by some sensational media reports, but both governments have repeatedly said American beef poses no health risk.
Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.
The rallies, which began in early May, have been mostly peaceful, although tensions flared this week after the government instructed police to take a harder line.
Police have detained more than 200 protesters in recent days, later releasing 92.
The protests are a major headache for President Lee Myung-bak, who took office three months ago. He sought last week to reassure the country over the safety of U.S. beef, but failed to ease public anger.
Critics accuse Lee of making too many concessions on the beef issue in an attempt to gain U.S. congressional approval for a broader bilateral free trade agreement.