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Candlelight 2008 and Behind the Scenes in the Beef Deal
The role of the OIE in changing the category of US beef in South Korea
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-06 10:18 (KST)   
Hundreds of thousands gathered in Seoul on May 10, 2008 to protest the Lee administration policy on US beef imports
©2009 OhmyNews Nam S.Y.
The international categories for judging the safety of each country's beef were changed in 2007. Under the new categories, and shortly after the US and Canada were reclassified from the old classification to the new category "Controlled Risk" for BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or more commonly known as 'mad cow disease'), US beef began arriving in South Korea.(1)

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What is the significance of the role played by this change in status of US beef by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in the beef deal?

But first some background.

In May 2008 Middle School students in South Korea held the first candlelight vigil protesting the actions of their new president, Lee Myung-bak who agreed to the removal of restrictions on the import of beef from the US. This was but one of a number of criticisms of the Korean government that netizens discussed and critiqued in their discussion forums on the Internet and then came into the streets to protest. Complaints about the removal of the restrictions on the import of US beef into South Korea were a source of some of the ferment motivating many of the protesters. These complaints were also strongly criticized by the conservative media and government, which claimed that US beef was safe.

To understand this dispute, however, it is important to look at what went on behind the scenes influencing Lee's removing the restrictions on US beef.

II - Reviewing What Happened

On April 17, Lee Myung-bak, the newly elected President of South Korea prepared to meet with the American President George Bush. The Lee administration agreed to a new beef import agreement which provided that beef of any cut, any age and with bone in, could be imported into South Korea from the US. This was a striking departure from the previous beef agreements which since 2003 had required US imports to meet requirements designed to protect the South Korean public against exposure to the human version of mad cow disease. Several agreements had been drafted between the US and South Korea between December 2003 and April 2008. Each time, US beef imports were resumed, violations by US companies of the agreements were discovered and the imports were again suspended.

©2009 OhmyNews Yoo S.H.
The US government did not investigate the difficulties that led to the failure to meet the requirements of these agreements to find a way to have US companies improve their processes to enable them to meet the safety and health requirements of South Korea. Instead, a different strategy was adopted.

III - OIE Categories Used from 1999

Since 1999, the Paris based World Organization for Animal Health (formerly known as the Office of International Epizooties or OIE) had been the international organization which evaluated the level of infection of member nations with respect to Mad Cow Disease cases in their cattle.

In 1999, the OIE created 5 categories to represent the degree of mad cow risk in the nations that were part of the OIE. These 5 categories used were:

Provisionally Free
Minimum Risk
Moderate Risk
High Risk

These categories clearly differentiated between countries in the "free" category that had no BSE cases and countries with instances of BSE discovered in their cattle.

On Dec. 25, 2003 the US confirmed it had a case of BSE in native born cattle. On Dec. 27, 2003, South Korea banned US beef imports. Subsequently US beef exporters lost substantial sales in South Korea and in other countries.

The US took up the task of getting a change in the set of categories used by the OIE, so that the standards used by the organization would be transformed. This new set of categories would make it possible for a country that had reported cases of mad cow infection to continue to have an OIE classification enabling the export of its beef.

IV - Changing the OIE Categories

In 2005 the US sought to get the OIE to adopt the new set of categories the US government advocated. By 2006, the US succeeded, and the OIE threw out the 5 categories it had been using to classify the level of BSE infected cattle in a nation. A 3-category system promoted by the US became the new set of standards.

The three categories now included:

Negligible Risk
Controlled Risk
Undetermined Risk.

Which of the three categories is assigned to a nation is determined by a set of questions the applying nation answers, with the OIE not taking any responsibility for the accuracy of the answers provided by the nation to its questionnaire.

The US detected 3 cases of BSE between 2003 and 2007 in the comparatively small percentage of its cattle it tests for BSE. (The US tests 1 in 4,000 cattle, while Canada tests 1 in 250 and Japan every animal). Canada by testing 1 in 250 cattle has reported 15 cases of BSE between 2003 and 2009. With the fewer cattle that the US tests, the US cannot claim there is no BSE, only that by testing 1 in 4,000 cattle it has only identified 3.

Under the new set of categories, the US maintains its classification as a Controlled Risk country even if there are cases of BSE. With this change in the OIE classification system, the then US Secretary of Agriculture, Edward T. Schafer announced that he would urge countries that had more stringent import requirements like South Korea to change their import regulations so as to accept the import of US beef. These countries included Japan (which then imported only up to 20-month-old beef), China and Hong Kong.

Pressure was increasingly exerted on South Korea to accept the US criteria.

Whereas Americans eat 10 cuts of beef, Koreans eat 85 different cuts. Also Korean import standards had limited imports to beef from cattle under 30 months of age at the time of slaughter and to cuts that did not include spinal cord, or nerve ganglia, or other BSE prone parts of beef. In the April 2008 agreement, the US government insisted that these restrictions be removed. It used the promise of support for the US Congress to approve the US Korean FTA as the pressure for its demand.

The significance of such a change is that the South Korean beef import market which had been protected from BSE prone cuts and beef over 30 months of age, was stripped of this protection. With the import of this lower quality beef, this production would no longer be in place.

While Japan would not allow beef over the age of 20 months to be imported, the Korean government had accepted beef over 30 months, actually beef of any age to be imported into South Korea. The older the cattle, the more susceptible it is to mad cow disease. The disease takes several years to develop so it is more likely to be found in older aged cattle than in younger cattle.

Also, the beef deal between the US and South Korea that had been agreed to on April 18, 2008 originally allowed the import into Korea of as one opposition law maker said, "animal parts categorized as unfit for consumption in the US."

These included three cattle parts the traverse processes and spinous processes of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. They are defined as Specified Risk Materials (SRM) in the US.

Even the conservative Chosun Ilbo noted that this "caused widespread protests."

In response to the complaints, the US trade representative Susan Schwab and her Korean counterpart Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon held a press conference on Tuesday, May 20 where they made public a letter amending the April agreement, so that the specified risk materials (SRM) that had to be removed for sale of beef in the US would also have to be removed before the export of beef to Korea, implicitly acknowledging that without the demonstrations South Korea would have been exposed to SRM forbidden in the US.

The change was announced at a press conference described in an article in Chosun Ilbo on May 21, 2008. (3)

Korean Internet portals and other media carried articles and online discussions about the fact that beef that was formerly considered BSE risk prone was now to be freely imported into South Korea.

V - Candlelight Demonstrations Challenge Lowering These Standards

Korean middle school and high school students discussed how this more BSE prone beef would likely end up in their school lunches. Students encouraged others to come to a candlelight protest, the first of many, held on May 2.

The candlelight vigil was announced via SMS messaging and on internet portals including a popular fan site. It was reported that 15,000 people attended.

Similarly housewives and office workers, labor union activists and college students were upset that the South Korean government allowed an important agreement providing for the downgrading of the quality of beef to be sold in South Korea.

Candlelight vigils in South Korea continued. A growing number and cross section of the population were eager to participate. By June 10 over a million people protested throughout Korea, with 700,000 protesting in Seoul.

A major demand of the demonstrators was for the Lee administration to renegotiate the beef agreement. The Lee administration was not able to get the US government to renegotiate the agreement. It was only able to get the US government to agree to a voluntary and temporary self regulating freeze on the import of beef older than 30 months and that certain SRMs would be removed even from beef less than 30 months old.

This voluntary agreement was only to be in force temporarily until the Korean public was judged to be willing to accept the lower quality US beef imports.

What is significant about these developments is that the US government on behalf of beef exporters (packers) worked to get the OIE to change the categories of the international organization which describe the quality of beef to be exported around the world. South Koreans demanded that their government resist the US government pressure to lower the standards for the quality of food to be imported into South Korea.

While the Lee administration claimed to apologize for not communicating adequately with the public, the conservative media issued an array of criticisms of demonstrators, claiming that they were misled.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, during a visit to South Korea in Summer 2008, supported the official response. At a joint press conference with the Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, the Secretary General is quoted as saying "it is very important for the people to support policies of the government and to actively have trust in the government and to ensure and support the Korean government's desire to act in accordance with international standards and agreements."(4)

It is the actions of the US government, of the OIE, and of the South Korean government, to agree to a lowering of standards of the beef food supply that is the problem for the public health of society. There is a principle voiced by many people around the world called "the precautionary principle." When health is involved governments should take the greatest precaution and err on the side of safety.

Similarly the precautionary principle, the principle that public health concerns be treated as important, is the principle that is to be primary when dealing with food safety if the food system is to be protected.

While this downgrading of the categorizing of beef imports has been carried out with little mainstream media attention in the US, a cattlemen's association R-Calf USA, along with several public advocate groups including the Consumer's Union, filed an injunction to stop the import of over 30 month (OTM) cattle from Canada into the US.

Even with the limited testing for BSE in Canada, 15 cases were identified between 2003 and April 2009. Americans lawyers representing the R-Calf lawsuit argued that to import such cattle into the US would harm the US cattle stock. Recognizing the need for the cautionary principle when there is a such a risk, the judge granted a preliminary injunction to stop the import of Canadian over 30 month beef and cattle into the US until the Department of Agriculture would go through a public comment and discussion procedure on its plan to bring into the US OTM cattle and beef from Canada.

Likewise in South Korea lawyers sued the government to rescind the agreement it negotiated with the US And the National Assembly of South Korea began conducting an investigation into how the agreement came about.

In an Open Letter to President Bush, a middle school student explains that (5):

"(W)e should err on the side of caution and emphasize prevention. Why would the European Union say "no", completely, to US beef? Why would the US itself not consume beef older than 30 months? The truth is that there is a possibility of it being very dangerous."

The letter continued:

"BSE has spread since the 1980s. Scientists say that it is caused by the use of animal feed made from cows that already have the disease. Since then, for 20 years, in countries all around the world, cows in countries like the United Kingdom, have consumed such feed and BSE became a serious problem."

"Along with Europe, in 2001 Japan detected BSE in cattle and in 2003, even the US discovered BSE in its stocks."

Instead of Lee welcoming the fact that there is interest and discussion by citizens and netizens about the laws and foreign policy agreements of South Korea, he has resorted to harsh measures to punish demonstrations and media criticism of his policies. But such protest and discussion by netizens is a basis for creating more democratic processes.

The candlelight demonstrations in South Korea in 2008 were an effort by citizens and netizens to impact government policy. There is a desire on the part of netizens and others in the South Korean society to be able to have their views respected by government officials and to have government policy reflect the input from the public.

With corporate globalization, policies like the change in standards at the OIE are being created at an international level and citizens and netizens at the national level are trying to find a means of resisting the usurpation of the national policy process. With the Internet, netizens have the ability to explore the root causes behind the policies being introduced into the national arena by their government officials.

The struggle between the Lee administration and the protesters in South Korea during Candlelight 2008 was a significant 21st century struggle over the question what is democracy.


1. Ian Elliott, "CCA pleased with government approach to Korea beef issue", Feedstuffs, Apr 15, 2009.

2. Korea, US Agree Extra Beef Safety Rules
Chosun Ilbo, May 21, 2008.

3. Situation about Korean People's Struggle on Beef Deal
Thursday, 12 June 2008

4. Jae-Soon Chang, AP, "UN Chief Urges S. Korea to trust government on beef safety", The China Post, July 5, 2008

5. "Beef Imports to Korea: An Open Letter to President Bush Korean middle school student Chae-song Kim asks that the trade agreement be reconsidered", OhmyNews International, June 14, 2008.

A version of this article appears on netizenblog.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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