You wouldn't know it from reading the newspapers, but the
streets of Seoul are packed with tens of thousands of angry protesters who've
brought business and government to a grinding halt. The demonstrations have
dragged on for more than a month and show no sign of ending anytime soon.
President Lee Myung-Bak's decision to lift the ban on US beef imports has set
off a political firestorm that is likely to bring down the government and put
the kibosh on free trade agreements for years to come.
Last Tuesday, the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade
Unions threatened to call a general strike if the meat-deal with Washington was
not rescinded. If the unions strike, the whole capital will shut down. That's
why the politicians are scrambling for solutions.
South Korea suspended the purchase of US beef in 2003 after
an incident of mad cow was reported in Washington state. Many Koreans still
don't believe the government's assurances that the meat is safe and they may
have a point. According to the LA Times the USDA tests less than 1 percent of
cattle. (USDA Mad Cow Madness" LA Times) In contrast, Japan tests every
cow that enters the food chain.
Also, according to the Associated Press, "Restricted
imports of U.S. beef reached South Korean supermarkets last year, but further
shipments were put on hold in October after banned parts, such as bones, were
found in a shipment.
Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones
from infected animals. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the
illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal
The Myung-Bak administration is being strong-armed by the
Bush team to ignore the massive protests and honor the terms of the trade
agreement. It's a "lose-lose" situation for the Korean president who
can either incur the wrath of the corporate oligarchs by caving in or commit
political seppuku by shrugging off the demands of his people. Either way, Lee's
career is kaput; he'll never survive the fallout.
According to AFP, "Seoul insists it cannot meet
protesters' demands to renegotiate the beef deal, saying it would jeopardize a
separate, wider free trade agreement and cast doubt on South Korea's good faith
as a negotiator. . . . The US apparently fears any official endorsement would
breach World Trade Organization rules."
Right; "a deal is a deal;" what were they
thinking? How could they expect to bend the rules for something as trivial as
public safety? So on with the protests, on with the strike. The whole issue of
free trade is now precariously balanced on a few pounds of sketchy brisket.
The media has done a first-rate job of diverting attention
from the the central issue of whether meat is safe or not by characterizing the
protests as "frustration with President Lee". This is just more
nonsense to protect the beef industry. In reality, people everywhere want to be
sure that what they put in their mouths is safe to eat. The lack of confidence
in US beef imports has struck a nerve in the publics consciousness, sending
thousands of Koreans into the streets shouting slogans and waving fists. But is
their rage is justified?
According to Martha Rosenberg, "Seven people have died
from probable Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in the US in the last nine months . . .
Do trade officials know something we don't know?"
She reported, "In May, the Bush administration urged a
federal appeals court to reverse a lower court ruling that allowed Arkansas
City, KS-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef to conduct advanced mad cow
testing on its animals--presumably because it would raise consumer questions
and make other packers look bad.
"This is the government telling the consumers, 'You're
not entitled to this information,'" protested Creekstone attorney Russell
Frye, according to the AP, a charge also heard in March when USDA refused to
name companies selling 143 million pounds of recalled Westland/Hallmark beef
because the information was "proprietary." [Meat Wars with South Korea, Martha
Hmmmm. So, why is the Bush administration so surprised that
foreigners don't want our beef if it isn't properly tested? What were they
In 2003, Dave Louthan wrote an article for CounterPunch
where he identified himself as one of the crew that was working at Vern's Moses
Lake Meats when tests came back on a cow that had BSE.(Mad cow) The USDA
swooped in and tried to hush the whole thing up, but Louthan blew the whistle.
He said, "They asked me 'was the cow in the food
chain?' I told them of course it was, it's meat. Where else would it be? They
asked me if the cow was a downer. I told them no, it was just an old cow. . . .
How many other walkers have BSE? We will never know. The USDA only tested the
downers and cripples and only at our plant."
(Now here's the kicker) "When the USDA said no more
downers would be slaughtered, they essentially said no more BSE testing would
be done. Vern's and every other slaughterhouse kept right on killing and
selling Holstein meat from the same area as the mad cow with no BSE testing
whatsoever. This is true and easily verifiable." (Dave Louthan, They are Lying about your Food, CounterPunch, 2003)
Yikes! So the USDA deliberately put the public at risk just
to save a few bucks for the industry?
But what's the big deal, anyway; you get a bad steak and
maybe you get a fever for a few days and throw up, right?
Wrong. As Louthan says: "BSE is 100 percent fatal -- if
you or your kids get it, you die a very painful death. It's a slow, wasting
disease. It's terrible."
Huh, it's fatal?
According to Louthan, "If you eat mad cow, you are
going to get sick and you are going to die."
Louthan estimates that "there are over a million mad
cows in this country" but we'll never know for sure because the government
is determined to limit testing to a very small percentage of the cows. The Bush
administration would rather bully our trading partners into taking dodgy beef
then do what's necessary to keep the public safe.
There have been very few updates on the mad cow story with
one exception that appeared in USA Today, titled "US on Mad Cow: Don't
Test all cattle" (5-29-07) Here's an excerpt:
"WASHINGTON (AP) � The Bush administration said Tuesday
it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow
disease. . . . The Agriculture Department tests less than 1% of slaughtered
cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. But
Kansas-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef wants to test all of its cows. Larger
meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone tested its meat and
advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive test, too. A
federal judge ruled in March that such tests must be allowed. The ruling was to
take effect June 1, but the Agriculture Department said Tuesday it would appeal
� effectively delaying the testing until the court challenge plays out. . . . Mad
cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is linked to more than 150
human deaths worldwide, mostly in Britain."
Great. So the Bush administration is spearheading the effort
to stop additional testing because it might cost too much. There's something to
mull over before biting into that next juicy hamburger.
An editorial in the South Korea newspaper "The Hankyoreh"
summed up the real reasons behind the "meat wars" like this: "If
the United States is going to be selling beef on the international market, IT
SHOULD MAKE SURE THAT IT IS SAFE. The thing is, there are doubts about the
safety of American beef even within the United States. The New York Times has
reported that in 2005, when there was a second confirmed case of mad cow
disease, the U.S. Agriculture Department hid the fact for seven months. The
Times also reported that of the 30 million cows slaughtered in the United
States annually, only 650,000, or about 2 percent, are tested for mad cow
disease. . . . Fixing the problems quickly and making it possible to market
safety-assured beef would be helping American farmers." ("The
"U.S. role in the beef issue", The Hankyoreh, South Korea)
BSE is serious business. As Louthan says, "If you eat
mad cow, you are going to get sick and you are going to die." It's no
joke. The Bush administration needs to stop making excuses and fix
the damn system.
Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at email@example.com.