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Boned US Beef Makes First Arrival in South Korea Since 2003

The first cuts of US beef with bones have arrived in South Korea since they were banned nearly five years ago. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, massive street protests over US beef have calmed, but anger over an import resumption deal remains.

South Korean quarantine inspectors began the process Tuesday of admitting beef ribs from the United States for sale in the country's markets. The beef arrived earlier by airplane, ending a total absence of bone-in US beef in South Korea that lasted nearly five years.

South Korea used to be the world's third leading importer of US beef. However, it banned US beef altogether in late 2003, after a single US animal was discovered to have "mad cow disease," a fatal condition which decays the brain. Doctors say it is possible, but unlikely, to contract a human form of the disease by eating meat from infected animals.

US authorities have always maintained US beef is safe. There has never been a proven case of US beef infecting consumers with brain disease. South Korea agreed to a limited resumption of boneless beef last year, then re-imposed the ban after some shipments were found to contain bone fragments.

A public uproar followed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's April deal with President Bush to resume nearly all beef imports. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets for weeks of nightly demonstrations that occasionally turned into violent clashes. Protesters accused Mr. Lee of treating public health too casually, but the beef issue served as a hub for a host of other political complaints against his administration.

The protests have ebbed due to a firmer approach by police, and moves by South Korea and the United States to amend the deal. Tuesday's beef shipment was plastered with stickers certifying the meat was derived from cattle younger than two and a half years old-- widely seen as having a lower risk of mad cow disease.

Park Chang-kyu runs a beef store here in Seoul, and started selling warehoused U.S. beef last month. He says sales figures belie many of the protesters' complaints. He says around July first, South Koreans nationwide started buying about 400 kilograms of beef a day. Now, they are up to buying three ton a day. He says he has been getting up to forty telephone calls a day requesting so-called "LA Kalbi," or U.S. beef with bones.

Park says at first, he got lots of protest calls - including threats to blow up his store. Nowadays, those have eased off.

A portion of Tuesday's US beef shipment may be ready for store shelves in as few as three days. Inspectors say they may spend up to 18 days examining certain cuts about which consumers have expressed the most concern.