Meat wars: Why are those wacky Koreans dissin' our beef?
By Mike Whitney
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 23, 2008, 00:13

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Korean Confederation of Trade Unions threatened to call a general strike if the meat-deal with Washington was not rescinded.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 malady."

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 Rosenberg]

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 expecting?

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?

Apparently so.

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.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at

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