updated 1/13/2006 9:16:01 AM ET 2006-01-13T14:16:01

South Korea agreed Friday to resume imports of some American beef, banned two years ago over fears of mad cow disease, the government said.

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South Korea will start importing U.S. meat from calves under 30 months old by the end of March, the government said in a statement.

But the agreement excludes the import of beef ribs, a key U.S. demand in negotiations, South Korea said. Beef ribs accounted for more than 60 percent of American beef shipments here before the ban, according the U.S. Embassy.

The two sides had been holding talks since Monday, though they took a break Wednesday. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment, saying the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Agriculture would release details later in Washington.

Mad cow scare
South Korea shut its doors to U.S. beef imports in December 2003 after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease. At the time, it was the third-largest foreign market for American beef, after Japan and Mexico.

South Korea said it would import meat only, not bones, on the ground that some material inside bones, including marrow, have been cited as dangerous to consume.

Scientists believe mad cow disease — formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — spreads when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals. It is thought to cause the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

South Korea warned imports could be suspended again if safety concerns re-emerge.

“If the South Korean government determines the situation has worsened, including the outbreak of BSE, it can suspend the imports of U.S. beef,” said Park Hyun-chool, the director general of the livestock bureau ad t the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry.

“We place top priority on consumer safety,” he told reporters.

U.S. beef is expected to be in stores in April, Park said.

Panel declares U.S. beef safe
A ministry advisory panel last month said U.S. beef could be considered safe to eat if tougher inspection and quarantine measures were taken, paving the way for this week’s negotiations.

The issue remains sensitive in South Korea. Some 2,000 cattle ranchers held a peaceful protest near the National Assembly on Friday against lifting the ban.

Japan, which had a similar ban, recently eased its prohibition on U.S. and Canadian beef after two years of negotiations and a lengthy approval process.

In 2002, South Korea imported 213,000 tons of U.S. beef worth $610 million, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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