WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A South Korean delegation will conduct a week-long review this week of U.S. mad-cow safeguards and will meet with the top U.S. animal health official on Tuesday in the wake of a new U.S. case of the brain-wasting disease.
A USDA spokesman said it is routine for trading partners to seek details about animal disease outbreaks. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote to 28 countries, including major importers, last week to assure them U.S. beef is safe to eat.
"The Republic of Korea is an important partner and we welcome the opportunity to share information about the effective system we have in place for safeguarding against the risks posed by BSE," said USDA spokesman Matt Herrick, using the abbreviation for mad cow's formal name, bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea, in that order, were the largest markets for U.S. beef in 2011, accounting for 90 percent of beef exports. Ten percent of U.S. beef is exported. Some 380 million lbs, worth $661 million, were shipped to South Korea in 2011, says USDA.
The latest U.S. case of mad cow disease, the fourth since 2003 but the first in six years, was reported a week ago in an elderly dairy cow in Tulare County about 175 miles north of Los Angeles. The cow was killed after it became unable to walk or stand. Its carcass was selected at a rendering plant for tests under USDA's mad cow surveillance program.
The nine-member delegation was to meet USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford on Tuesday. It also will visit USDA laboratories in Ames, Iowa, that confirm mad cow cases and visit farms, ranches and rendering plants in California.
While the group was not slated to visit the farm where the infected cow lived, the trip was expected to help the delegation understand how U.S. safeguards work. Government officials, academics and consumer group representatives are members of the delegation, scheduled to return home on May 9.
South Korea allows imports of beef from U.S. cattle under 30 months of age if high-risk materials are removed. Seoul banned U.S. beef after the first U.S. case in 2003 and re-opened its market in 2008. This time, it said it would strengthen its import inspections of U.S. beef until it got more information about U.S. practices to prevent mad cow.
The primary U.S. safeguards against mad cow are a ban on using cattle parts in cattle feed and a requirement for slaughterhouses to remove brains, spinal cords, nervous tissue and other materials that are at the highest risk of carrying mad cow disease. USDA says the surveillance testing can detect prevalence of the fatal disease at levels of less than one in a million head.
Scientists say mad cow is caused by malformed proteins called prions and can be spread when cattle eat infected feed. It has an incubation period of several years. People can contract a human version by eating contaminated beef. There are no known U.S. cases.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)