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Getting Over Mad Cow is So Hard to Do

Somewhere between when the Obama Asian Tour reaches Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday and when it moves over to Yokohama, Japan on Friday, the American president must get barriers to U.S. beef removed.

So says Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who managed to pen a list of demands to Obama before the president left for Asia last week.  Nelson, a Democrat, represents one of the largest beef-producing states, which is also a big exporter.

Before 2003, Japan and Korea were U.S. beef’s first and third largest foreign markets.  But U.S. beef was banned after a cow infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease was discovered in Washington state.

Japan and Korea remained off limits to U.S. beef for three years.  U.S. beef exports got underway again in July 2006 for Japan and November 2006 for Korea, but with restrictions.

Nelson says these restrictions have “had a devastating impact on beef producers across our nation and were particularly hard on my home state of Nebraska, which consistently ranks near the top nationally in commercial cattle slaughter and cattle on feed.”

“In Japan’s case, our exports are limited to boneless beef, age 20 months or younger,” Nelson wrote Obama.  “Meanwhile, Korea prohibits U.S. beef producers from exporting cattle older than 30 months of age.  These market restrictions have had a devastating impact on our nation’s cattle producers.”

In 2003, the value of beef exports to Japan totaled nearly $1.2 billion and to Korea more than $750 million, Nelson said.   

“Now, nearly seven years after the initial ban and three years since the (World Animal Health Organization safe-for-export classification), our producers are still at just a third of these values for beef exports, having sold only $496 million of U.S. beef to Japan and $215 million to Korea in 2009.”

Nelson urged Obama to bring up the U.S. beef issue personally with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Korea President Lee Myung bak by pointing out that mutual cooperation requires fair trade practices.

The World Animal Health Organization (OIE) unanimously adopted a resolution stating that U.S. beef was a “controlled risk,” meaning the product is safe for export.  Nelson urged the president to press for reopening the Korean and Japanese markets to all U.S. beef regardless of age.

Nelson, a conservative Democrat who some think might eventually switch to the Republican Party, urged Obama to pursue the issue in his talks with the two Asian leaders.

“Despite the fact that U.S. beef is the highest quality and safety in the world, Japan and Korea have placed restrictions on trade without any scientific basis,” Nelson added.

Obama last summer directed the U.S. Trade Representative to enter into negotiations with South Korea in hopes that a new beef deal could emerge during the president’s visit. 

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