Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is facing off with the White House over the pending South Korea free trade agreement because he wants loosened restrictions on U.S. beef imports.
“I’m not going to support the agreement unless there’s a change,” Baucus told the Wall Street Journal, after a hearing on Capitol Hill this week. Baucus believes the proposed agreement with South Korea, a priority for the Obama administration, doesn’t go far enough to relax restrictions and give the U.S. beef industry access to the country’s market. He’s also unhappy that cattle ranchers in Montana were left out of the deal.
The U.S. beef industry–which is important to Baucus’ home state–has worked feverishly to get back into South Korea without restrictions on exports since 2003 when the country banned American beef after a cow was found infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in Washington state.
Five years after the ban took effect, the South Korean government relaxed the restrictions to prohibit meat only from cows older than 30 months, which are perceived to be at higher risk of mad cow disease. The change in policy caused massive protests in the streets of Seoul, but U.S. beef imports doubled within a year.
In early December, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jon Hoon closed the door on discussing the country’s stance on American beef restrictions. “It is our government’s firm position that there is no room for further discussions on it,” he told KBS radio in Seoul.
But the trade deal does phase out tariffs on a broad range of American agriculture products, including beef. The 40 percent tariff currently in place will be phased out over 15 years.
Though Baucus seems to be holding out for a better deal for ranchers, the American Meat Industry, along with over 60 industry trade groups and companies, is strongly urging Congress to approve the agreement (KORUS FTA) “without delay.”
“Risks for U.S. agriculture – and they are extremely serious – arise if the KORUS FTA is not implemented. If this agreement is rejected, we stand to relinquish our export sales to countries that have implemented their own FTAs with Korea,” the groups said in a letter sent to lawmakers in both chambers last week.
The American Meat Institute says it believes the agreement will increase U.S. beef, pork, and poultry exports by more than $2.1 billion.