Global Processing

US companies to indicate age on beef for S. Korea

June 4, 2008
The Associated Press is reporting that several U.S. beef companies said recently they will begin labeling shipments to South Korea to note how old slaughtered cattle were at the time of their death, responding to weekend protests over fears that U.S. beef imports carry a risk of mad cow disease.

Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc., as well as Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., JBS Swift & Co., National Beef Packing Co. and Smithfield Beef Group Inc., said the labels would show whether the cattle were younger or older than 30 months when slaughtered. The companies said in a joint news release that it would be up to South Korean customers to decide whether to purchase the meat or not.

Younger cows are believed to be less at risk for mad cow disease.

U.S beef has been banned by South Korea for most of the past 4 1/2 years over fears of mad cow disease. The South Korean Agriculture Ministry said in April it would begin loosening restrictions on U.S. beef imports, beginning with imports from cattle younger than 30 months.

Last week, the ministry announced that the government had finalized new regulations that call for South Korea to import nearly all cuts of American beef without restrictions on the cattle''s age.

Nearly 60,000 people took to the streets of Seoul over the weekend to denounce the government and call for the import agreement to be scrapped, and South Korea announced Monday that it would delay its planned resumption of U.S. beef imports.

For Tyson, the world''s largest meat producer, the loss of the South Korean market four years ago tore away its third-largest export location, behind Japan and Canada. In 2003, South Korea represented 15 percent of its $2.2 billion international sales, Mickelson said. Last year, the company reported international sales of $1.9 billion.

Mark Klein, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Cargill, declined to discuss the share of its export sales formerly represented by South Korea but described the market as a top one for U.S. beef.

Under the companies'' plan, the labels would be used for up to 120 day. Mickelson said the companies were still working out how the labels would look and where they would be placed on boxes.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997.

In 2003, South Korea joined Japan in banning U.S. beef imports after a cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease. Officials later determined the cow had been born in Canada.

Japan lifted its ban in 2005 but imposed it again in January 2006 after an import violation. U.S. beef shipments to Japan resumed in July 2006, but sales became a fraction of what they once were.

In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.

There have been three cases of that disease reported from the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but none of them are believed to have gotten it from eating beef in the U.S. The CDC said it thinks there is strong evidence that two of the cases contracted the disease while living in the U.K. and one while living in Saudi Arabia.

Two of the cases resulted in fatalities.

Americans consumed 28.1 billion pounds of beef in 2007, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.