South Korea to begin talks with U.S. on beef imports

South Korea and the United States agreed Tuesday to begin talks next month to resume American beef imports following a two-year ban over mad cow fears. "South Korea and the U.S. reached an understanding that they would resume negotiations in the middle of January," Park Hyun-chool, director general of livestock bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told The Associated Press.

The decision, which came during a 50-minute meeting between the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services, J.B. Penn, and South Korean Vice Agriculture Minister Lee Myung-soo, would mark the first step in reopening what had been the third-largest export market for American beef.

It follows last week's announcement by an advisory committee that banned U.S. beef could be considered safe to eat if stronger inspection and quarantine measures are taken. The committee also said there were no decisive grounds to say U.S. beef was not safe. South Korea slapped the ban on U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after a Holstein cow in the U.S. state of Washington tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease. South Korea has so far rebuffed repeated U.S. requests to end the ban, citing health and safety concerns.

During Tuesday's meeting, South Korea and the U.S. did not go into details on specific import conditions, such as designating U.S. slaughter houses allowed to process beef going to South Korea, Park said, calling it premature.

Park said the sides will discuss details when they open negotiations next month.

Before the ban, South Korea had been the third-largest market for U.S. beef exports. In 2002, the country imported 213,000 tons of U.S. beef worth US$610 million (Ђ473 million), according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. The top two exporters to South Korea now are Australia and New Zealand.

Japan, which had a similar ban, eased its ban on U.S. and Canadian beef last week after two years of negotiations and a lengthy approval process, reports the AP. I.L.

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