msnbc.com news services
updated 12/30/2003 10:04:23 AM ET 2003-12-30T15:04:23

U.S. agriculture officials arrived Tuesday in South Korea, the second-largest foreign market for American beef, to discuss the discovery of a case of the mad cow disease in the United States.

South Korea is one of more than 30 countries that have banned the import of U.S. beef and other cow parts since the United States announced last week that a Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

On Tuesday, Taiwanese officials said their nation would ban U.S. beef imports for at least seven years. America is the source of 20 percent of Taiwan's beef.

Before coming to Seoul, the American delegation asked Japan to discuss lifting of the beef ban in a meeting in Tokyo but the request was rejected, a Japanese official said on condition of anonymity.

South Korean media had expected the U.S. delegation led by David Hegwood, a trade adviser to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, to make similar demands on Seoul.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul denied the reports.

"Contrary to some press reports, the goal of the delegation is not to pressure the Korean government to immediately reopen the Korean market to American beef imports," the Embassy said Monday in a press release.

The delegation will inform Seoul of investigations into the outbreak and discuss next steps, it said.

South Korea is the second-largest export market for U.S. beef after Japan. Last year's exports totaled 213,000 tons, worth $610 million, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Japan and South Korea are among more than 30 countries, which account for more than 90 percent of U.S. beef exports, that have banned American beef products in the past week.

Scientists believe BSE is spread when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals. It is thought to cause the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

White House worries
White House officials are worried about both the political fallout and the economic impact of the disease just as the U.S. economy is showing signs of strength.

Privately, some Bush administration officials said that if the U.S. case is linked to a Canadian herd in Alberta, where another case of mad cow was discovered in May, there may be little or no need to make any regulatory changes, according to an administration source.

The USDA has tested some 20,000 cattle this year and will nearly double that number in 2004, but that would still be a small fraction of the total U.S. cattle slaughter which numbered some 35 million head last year.

More than two dozen nations have stopped buying U.S. beef, bringing the $3.2 billion U.S. beef export business to a halt.

The growing evidence of a Canadian link failed to persuade Japan to reconsider its ban on importing U.S. beef. Japan bought more than $1 billion worth of U.S. beef, veal and variety meats last year.

The USDA also expanded its investigation to trace the whereabouts of eight more animals that were shipped to the United States along with the sick cow. That brings to 81 the total number of cattle being traced for possible infection.

Presidential candidate Howard Dean was among Democrats who criticized Republicans for killing a recent Senate proposal to ban U.S. meatpackers from using downer cattle in the human food supply.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, also urged the Bush administration to support an amendment approved by the Senate last month that would prohibit U.S. slaughter plants from using downer cattle in beef for human consumption.

The Senate language, adopted as part of the USDA's annual spending legislation, was dropped from a final bill by House Republicans.

"This situation requires effective and decisive leadership," Dorgan said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic presidential hopeful, separately said he would introduce legislation next month to ban downer cattle from the human food supply.

The proposed House bill would also require testing of all downer cattle for mad cow disease, establish a mandatory traceback system for all cattle, and prohibit the use of any mammal remains in livestock feed for any animals that humans eat, he said.

(The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)

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