S.Korea importers say not shunning old U.S. cattle

SEOUL, May 21 (Reuters) - South Korea's beef importers on Wednesday denied they had made any agreement to block U.S. beef from cattle older than 30 months in the face of mounting public safety concerns about the product.

President Lee Myung-bak was quoted by his spokesman on Tuesday as saying that though South Korea had agreed to import U.S. beef of all ages, in practice importers would only bring in younger meat. The comments sparked protests from Washington.

"There has been no agreement among importers to shun beef products from old cattle. But what we had been importing is mainly products from cattle of less than 30 months old and that will be the case when trade resumes," Park Chang-kyu, who represents a group of 50 U.S. beef importers, told Reuters.

"But it's up to individual importers, and if they want to allow in products from old cattle and sell them to makers of processed food such as minced beef and sausages, there's no way to block them."

The issue has wider repercussions for Seoul, with U.S. legislators making clear they would not give their backing to a free trade agreement between the two countries without South Korea agreeing to import U.S. beef.

The office of the U.S. Trade Representative said it had raised "serious concerns" with senior Korean government officials over the comments from the presidential Blue House spokesman.

A Blue House official had no immediate reaction to the U.S. comments.

The government has come under heavy political pressure over the beef deal because of widespread concerns over mad cow disease -- the reason South Korea banned U.S. beef five years ago. Up to then, South Korea had been the third biggest export market for U.S. beef.

Another South Korean beef importer said it has not decided yet whether to import beef products from old cattle but would consider it if there was demand.

"We don't expect strong demand from consumers for U.S. beef from old cattle but if there is some good demand from processed food makers, we'll consider imports," the trader said.

The two countries held talks this week to calm safety worries as South Koreans reacted angrily to the agreement requiring them to accept certain beef cuts that other U.S. trade partners, such as Japan, still will not import.

At present, South Korea admits only boneless beef from cattle younger than 30 months old. But even that trade has been stalled since last year as Seoul suspended inspection after prohibited bone chips showed up in several U.S. shipments. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Alex Richardson)