SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's agriculture minister went on national television Friday to assure citizens of the safety of U.S. beef after the government agreed last month to resume imports following a lengthy ban over fears of mad cow disease.
''U.S. beef is safe from mad cow disease,'' Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Chung Woon-chun said at a televised news conference attended by the health minister and other officials.
Chung added that concerns about mad cow disease were ''to some extent exaggerated.''
South Korea agreed to resume imports of U.S. beef last month just hours before a meeting between leaders of the two countries.
South Korea suspended U.S. beef imports in late 2003 after mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state, cutting off what was then the third-largest overseas market for American beef.
Several efforts to resume restricted imports beginning in late 2006 floundered after some shipments were found to contain animal parts that had been banned over mad cow concerns.
The beef issue has been a major irritant in relations between Seoul and Washington and threatened the approval of a wider free-trade agreement between the two longtime allies.
Some U.S. lawmakers had insisted the beef issue needed to be resolved for them to back the trade deal, signed last year. Legislatures in both countries have yet to approve the accord.
South Korea's farm ministry said last month that imports were expected to resume in mid-May and expand in stages.
Seoul will first allow imports of American beef from cattle younger than 30 months, including cuts with bones. Younger cows are believed to be at less risk for mad cow disease.
Beef from older cattle will also be cleared for import after the U.S. strengthens controls on feed to reduce chances of infection, the ministry said.
South Korea also agreed not to immediately halt imports even if a new case of mad cow disease is discovered in the U.S. Instead, it will only move to halt imports if the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health downgrades its safety rating for American cattle.
Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. In humans, eating contaminated meat products is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.
South Korean farmers have vigorously opposed imports of U.S. beef as well as the free-trade deal with the U.S., fearing cheaper imports will threaten their livelihoods.