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S. Korean Officials Asked To Address Public Concern Over US Beef

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Monday directed officials to handle policies with the "safety and health of the people in mind" as his government is under pressure to halt American beef imports following a recent mad cow case in the United States.

Lee made the remarks during a weekly meeting with senior Secretaries after his Economic Secretary reported that the government was taking steps to dispel public concern about the safety of U.S. beef while placing its top priority on the health of the people.

"The government should manage policies with consumer prices, jobs, and the safety and health of the people in mind," Lee was quoted as saying by presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha. Lee, however, made no direct mention of U.S. beef, the spokesman said.

His remarks come after South Korea's ruling party chief Park Geun-hye urged the government to halt quarantine inspections of American beef until it was confirmed safe for consumption. Quarantine inspections are a key requirement for U.S. beef shipments for getting customs clearance. Halting the process would therefore have the same effect as suspending imports because shipments would not be cleared to reach the local market even if they arrive at the country's ports, according to South Korea's state-run media.

Opposition parties and other critics have accused the government of going back on a 2008 promise to immediately ban imports in the event of a new mad cow outbreak in the U.S. The government had promised to immediately halt imports, scrutinize all shipments already in the country, send an inspection team to the U.S. and suspend serving beef at schools and military units if a fresh mad cow case occurred.

The main Opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) has stepped up its attack on the government. "The government should immediately halt U.S. beef imports and start renegotiations to restore our quarantine sovereignty," DUP leader Moon Sung-keun said, accusing the government of lying to the public.

Since the outbreak of the first mad cow case in six years in the U.S., the government has been under pressure to halt imports. But the government decided to continue imports with strengthened quarantine checks, saying the latest case involving a dairy cow in California is not directly connected to beef that can be shipped to the country.

South Korea resumed U.S. beef imports in 2008 after a five-year ban. The decision sparked months of anti-government rallies, seriously rocking the then fledgling government of President Lee Myung-bak, amid public perception his government endangered public health to curry favor with the U.S.

by RTT Staff Writer

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