U.S. meets South Korean minister on beef dispute

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration’s top trade negotiator hosted her South Korean counterpart on Friday in a meeting that aimed to ease the uproar in South Korea over a recent deal to resume American beef shipments.

Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon met Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative, on Friday evening, but the private consultations surrounding the agreement to reopen South Korea’s market to U.S. beef after four years could easily stretch into Monday, a Schwab spokesman said.

Neither U.S. trade officials nor the beef industry would disclose very much about their goals for the meeting, though the Bush administration has said it is looking for “a mutually agreeable path forward.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office just months ago, sparked massive protests with his decision to allow U.S. beef back into the country.

Fears about mad cow disease, which was first found in U.S. cattle in 2003, prompting U.S. beef to be shunned by many trade partners, have been the rallying cry for opponents with a broad range of concerns about Lee’s young presidency.

The U.S. meat industry is keen to get the green light to ship a full range of products to the lucrative Korean market, which was the third-largest buyer of U.S. beef before Seoul clamped down on imports.

The resumption of the beef trade is also important to supporters of a major, still-unapproved, bilateral trade deal, which U.S. lawmakers promise will not advance until the beef question is settled.

Before leaving for Washington, Kim said he was looking for measures to prevent the import of beef from U.S. cattle older than 30 months.

At the same time, Lee’s government is hoping to minimize any changes to an April agreement and avoid the perception of reneging on a trade deal.

The frustrated U.S. effort in South Korea mirrors attempts to regain full access to other prized beef markets in Asia, such as Japan and China.

Officials had hoped the situation would change after the World Organization for Animal Health, a Paris-based arbiter, gave the United States a new safety rating last year.

Jim Robb, an agricultural economist at the Livestock Marketing Information Center, said that South Korea’s response took on even more importance as a possible example of how that OIE rating has led to relaxed import policies for U.S. beef.

He said that private U.S. beef companies, meanwhile, would likely agree to do what they can to ensure that only beef from cattle below 30 months -- most of what is exported falls in that category anyway -- is shipped to Korea.

Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago; Editing by Gary Hill