For the past two months, protesters have been filling the streets of Seoul condemning a decision to lift a ban on imported beef from the United States. We speak with Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union. He is in Seoul, where he is testifying before the South Korean National Assembly at a special committee hearing on mad cow disease. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now, finally, to another story about Korea. For the past two months, protesters have been filling the streets of Seoul condemning a decision to lift a ban on imported beef from the United States. On Wednesday, I talked to Michael Hansen in Seoul, senior scientist for Consumers Union. He was there testifying before the South Korean National Assembly at a special committee hearing on mad cow disease. And I asked him to explain what’s happening there.
MICHAEL HANSEN: What it’s all about is, there was a deal that was struck between Korea and the United States on April 18th, and that deal would completely open the market in Korea to US beef. Previously, they had only allowed a small amount in. When they opened the market on April 18th, that was a controversial issue. However, there was a TV program that aired on April 29th called PD Diary, and within two days after that program aired on April 29th, that set off this massive outpouring. And on Friday, May 2nd, there were 20,000 people in the streets of Seoul, and there have been thousands of people in the streets every day since then.
I was actually on that original program and have been in the media here regularly since then, as the deal that was struck on April 18th has actually been thrown overboard, and then they brought it back in again. And there’s been this back and forth. And it’s caused Lee Myung-bak — his popularity has dropped to virtually nothing. And what’s happening now is the opposition is trying to get this beef deal renegotiated, and the people are in the streets until that happens.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is the Koreans’ concern with US beef.
MICHAEL HANSEN: The Korean concern is — with US beef is, they’re concerned about mad cow disease, particularly the fact that older animals are being allowed into this country, and so they’re concerned about that risk. They know how bad the situation is in the US, how little we test and look at that, so they are just very concerned that they could be exposed to mad cow disease.
And it should be pointed out that the Koreans actually have a — genetically turn out to be more susceptible to these prion diseases. And if you look at what they eat, they do eat intestines and other parts of the animal which could be at higher risk of mad cow disease.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s step back a moment. Talk about what mad cow disease is.
MICHAEL HANSEN: Mad cow disease is a fatal brain-wasting disease that occurs in cattle. It was a big issue in the late 1980s in the United Kingdom, where hundreds of thousands of cattle had to be slaughtered because of this disease. It then spread to Europe and caused — wreaked havoc in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
And we’ve had mad cow in the United States. Our first case was in December of 2003. We’ve had a couple cases since then. And what happens is export markets dry up. So the Korean market was closed, and the Japanese market, and those are among the — the Japanese market is the largest export market for US beef, and Korea is number three. So this was about trying to reopen the Korean market, and they were trying to do that, because Korea desperately wanted the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: What leads you to believe there is a problem, or the Koreans to believe there’s a problem, five years after the ban was imposed?
MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, that actually hasn’t been reported properly. Five years ago, which was when the US had its first case of mad cow disease, the export markets disappeared, which is, the US did the same thing. Any country where BSE appears, the US stops imports from those countries. What happened is, then Korea partially opened up their market back in 2005, OK? In early 2006, they allowed meat to come back in, but it had to be from animals younger than thirty months of age, and it couldn’t contain any bones.
And so, what the concern was, is what they did in April, is that basically this agreement would have allowed meat from animals of any age to come into Korea, and even if there were more cases of mad cow in the US, that agreement said that Korea could not exclude US beef. And so, many Korean people viewed that as their national sovereignty being sold away, and potential public health concerns. And so, that’s why the people have been very concerned.
It should also be said, the media has paid a huge amount of attention to this, and the original program that was on, I guess you could say it was a little bit sensationalistic, but it appeared to resonate, and there has been sort of fighting ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hansen is with Consumers Union. We spoke to him in Seoul, South Korea, where the mad cow debate is raging, bringing tens of thousands of people out into the streets.