SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Sitting at tables with built-in grills, leading South Korean doctors and business executives ate U.S. beef on Wednesday in a bid to dispel public health fears.
The 19 physicians and executives ate American sirloin, with one top doctor saying it "tastes good and tender" and telling fellow South Koreans not to worry about getting mad cow disease from eating U.S. beef.
"There is no food whatsoever that we can say is 100 percent safe," said Choo Soo-ho, head of the Korean Medical Association, South Korea's largest doctors' organization. "But I can say the chance of catching mad cow disease (from eating U.S. beef) is nearly zero percent."
The Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a major business lobby, co-organized the event without government help in an effort to end the "useless argument" over U.S. beef so that the nation can concentrate on overcoming economic difficulties, said spokesman Park Jong-kab.
South Korea's agreement in April to resume imports of U.S. beef sparked near-daily street protests over mad cow disease concerns because the deal called for scrapping most restrictions the country had previously maintained over fears of the illness.
Despite repeated government assurances of the safety of U.S. meat, fears have been fanned due to false and sensational media reports along with unsubstantiated rumors posted on the Internet, suggesting the disease can spread through the air.
Fears became so intense that American beef is considered by some Koreans as akin to poison. Local media reported high-school girls crying over mad cow fears.
Unrelenting protests forced South Korea's government to negotiate an amendment to the April deal last month to import only beef from younger cattle considered less at risk of the disease. Still, smaller protests have continued.
U.S. beef went on sale early this month, but is still not widely available because large supermarket chains and restaurants are reluctant to sell or serve it for fear of a public backlash.
Choo said he organized the event with other doctors' and business associations to help people overcome fears of mad cow disease that he said were "not verified and sometimes exaggerated" and are now threatening to hurt the nation's economy.
"I love meat. This tastes good and tender," Choo said, dipping a piece of beef in a small salt dish.
"Eat it without any uneasiness. I can guarantee (the safety) by staking the honor of the Korean Medical Association," Moon Tai-joon, honorary chairman of the doctors' association, told reporters amid a barrage of camera flashes and smokes from the grill at his table.
The event, at a 30-table beef restaurant in western Seoul which began serving U.S. beef Saturday, drew wide media attention. Choo and Sohn Kyung-sik, head of the business lobby, had to stop eating several times to pose for cameras.
Owner Kim Chang-jo, 58, said consumer reaction had been positive.
"We've had about 30 calls a day inquiring about the location of our restaurant," Kim said. "There are many people who say they would buy and eat U.S. beef because it's cheaper and tastes good."
Kim's restaurant, called "Orae Drim" in Korean, serves U.S. beef for about a third of the price of domestic beef. Seasoned rib meat is sold for 8,500 won (US$8.50) while the same cut meat from domestic cattle usually sells for 25,000-30,000 won (US$25-US$30).
"Our customers say they have the right to choose, and whether we should eat U.S. beef or not should be left up to people's own discretion," Kim said.