SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea held an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday to deal with a rapidly expanding outbreak of foot and mouth disease while the government asked local slaughter houses to work on holidays to boost meat supply, though increased imports are ruled out for now.
The meeting, led by president Lee Myung-bak, was held to discuss changes in disinfection and precautious measures against foot-and-mouth, according to the government officials and local media. No further details were yet available.
The meeting follows last week’s first emergency meeting where Lee asked for fundamental measures against the disease.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy has culled 10 percent of its cattle and pigs as it tries to contain the foot-and-mouth outbreak, triggering a spike in domestic beef and pork prices and exacerbating food inflation.
The government on Tuesday announced plans to boost food supply to cope with rising prices ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
A South Korean agriculture ministry official said the country has no plans to boost imports now or cut import duties. The U.S. is the largest exporter of poultry and pork to South Korea and the second-largest beef exporter after Australia. Canada is the second-largest pork exporter to South Korea.
South Korea imposes about 40 percent of tariffs on imported beef, and about 25 percent of tariffs on imported pork.
“All meat imports depend on private importers. It is quite a sensitive issues for the government to say that we would boost imports by lowering tariffs, considering farmers, as a measure against foot-and-mouth diseases,” said the official who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Opening the market to further beef imports in particular has been a goal of a free trade agreement that need U.S. Congress approval, though the two sides have also worked to ease trade friction on the issue.
Front-month CME live cattle has gained almost 38 percent to a record high 109.50 cents a lb on January 11 from a near-term low reached on December 9, 2009 of 79.100 cents on optimism for domestic and export beef sales.
Front-month CME lean hog prices are down 11 percent for a record high of 90.175 cents a lb reached in May 2010.
While battling the serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, South Korea late on Tuesday raised its bird flu alert level to “watch” from “caution” after detecting the H5N1 avian influenza virus at poultry farms in four provinces.
There have been 34 suspected cases of bird flu in poultry, with 16 cases confirmed, the ministry said.
Outbreaks of bird flu have prompted the authorities to cull 470,000 poultry, or 0.4 percent of domestic stock, a ministry official said on Wednesday, while continuing the quarantine of commercial duck and chicken breeding farms in affected areas.
The outbreak of bird flu was first confirmed on December 31 in ducks in the city of Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, and in chickens in the city of Iksan in North Jeolla province.
South Korea has had no human cases of the high-severity bird flu strain. It has had three outbreaks of the virus at poultry farms in the past 10 years.
Agriculture Minister Yoo Jeong-bok has established a nationwide team to contain the spread of the disease, the government said. Authorities suspect the latest outbreak was brought to the peninsula by migratory birds.
Health experts fear the disease could mutate to a form that could be easily transmitted human-to-human, sparking a deadly global pandemic. Almost all of the human H5N1 infections to date were believed to have taken place directly from birds to humans.
Since 2003 the H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected around 500 people globally, killing nearly 60 percent. Most of the deaths have been in Asia.
Foot-and-mouth disease has spread across six of South Korea’s 16 provinces since the outbreak began in November.
The total number of pigs and cattle slaughtered stands at 1.4 million, the ministry said in its statement, up from around 1 million on Friday.
A net importer of beef, pork and chicken, South Korea confirmed 115 cases of 158 foot-and-mouth suspected reports as of Wednesday, the statement said.
Hundreds of thousands have been working day and night to contain foot-and-mouth by slaughtering some animals and vaccinating over 1.2 million mostly cattle, under a target to vaccinate 2.1 million in eight provinces.
Wholesale prices of beef and pork as of Tuesday soared by 9 percent and 22 percent respectively from December’s average prices, the ministry said.
The nationwide outbreaks, originating in pigs in the city of Andong in North Gyeongsang province on November 28, have prompted all livestock markets to be closed, while some zoos have also been shut.
Foot-and-mouth disease affects livestock including sheep, cows and pigs. Meat from infected animals is not harmful to humans.
Shares in seafood processors rallied on the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza, with Sajo Oyang and Dong Won Fish, major seafood processors, up by the daily limit of 15 percent on Wednesday.
Additional report by Park Jung-yeon and Chang Yeo-jung; Editing by Ed Lane