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South Korea Wants To Limit U.S. Beef Imports

President Lee Myung-bak suggested he would seek to ban imports of U.S. beef from older cattle amid a public backlash against the government over fears of mad cow disease.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's president suggested Tuesday that his country would seek to ban imports of U.S. beef from older cattle amid a public backlash against his government over fears of mad cow disease.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun said earlier Tuesday that Seoul had asked the U.S. to refrain from exporting any beef that comes from cattle 30 months of age and older, considered at greater risk of the illness.

A spokesman for President Lee Myung-bak said the president told a weekly Cabinet meeting that ''it is natural not to bring in meat from cattle 30 months of age and older as long as the people do not want it.''

Spokesman Lee Dong-kwan also expressed hope that the United States would respect South Korea's position following large-scale anti-government protests over the weekend.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S Ambassador to South Korea, said Washington saw no need to renegotiate an April agreement the two countries reached to resume imports.

''I can't deny that we're disappointed by this,'' he told reporters Tuesday after meeting South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade.

Vershbow said the deal is ''based on international science and there is no scientific justification to postpone implementation.''

South Korea agreed in April to reopen its market to U.S. beef after it was blocked for most of the past four and a half years in a ban sparked by the first case of the brain-wasting cattle sickness in the U.S. in late 2003.

However, after protests over the weekend involving tens of thousands of people and a request from the ruling party, the government said Monday it was delaying the implementation of the agreement.

The government decided on the delay to ''humbly accept the people's will,'' Chung said.

He said quarantine inspections of any U.S. beef will not resume until South Korea receives a response from Washington on the request to avoid exports of older cattle.

South Korea last year briefly allowed imports of boneless beef from cattle under 30 months of age, but they were suspended after bones were found in some shipments from U.S. meatpackers.

The April 18 accord allowed for a resumption of almost all imports -- except for cattle parts known as specified risk material such as the brain, skull, eyes and spinal cord -- in what had been third largest overseas market for U.S. beef. But the much-criticized deal sparked near daily street protests.

Those demonstrations escalated dramatically over the weekend after the government announced it would begin inspections of U.S. beef this week, the last step before resuming the imports.

A total of almost 60,000 people rallied in downtown Seoul over the weekend to denounce the government and call for the agreement to be scrapped. Police estimated 38,000 protesters turned out Saturday followed by 20,000 on Sunday.

The weekend rallies were the biggest yet in a month of demonstrations.

Protesters claim U.S. beef is unsafe and say Lee is ignoring their concerns, behaving arrogantly and kowtowing to Washington.

Americans consumed 28.1 billion pounds of beef in 2007, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show, and both U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly said American beef poses no safety risk.

The timing of the import deal -- reached just hours before a summit between Lee and U.S. President George W. Bush at his Camp David retreat -- has also fueled anger.

On Monday, several leading U.S. beef companies said they would begin labeling shipments to South Korea to indicate the age of cattle at time of slaughter.

The companies -- including Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS Swift & Co. -- said the labels would show whether the cattle were younger or older than 30 months when slaughtered.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997.

In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the brain-wasting cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.

South Korea bought about $813 million worth of American beef in 2003, before imports were banned. American beef accounted for almost half of the beef market in South Korea and nearly 70 percent of imports that year.

Last year, the U.S. managed to sell about $94 million worth of beef from July to October before imports were again suspended.

Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.