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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 12:42 am

What do Koreans know?

Asians aren’t irrational to fear U.S. beef -- we are

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What is it with those kooky South Koreans? Thousands of them have rushed into the streets to protest — get this — U.S. beef imports. Are they nuts? Or do they know something we don't?

South Koreans are rejecting our steaks and burgers because of the widespread belief there that America's industrialized production process brings a deadly dose of mad-cow disease to the plate. Once the third-largest importer of U.S. beef, South Korea shut its ports to our product after the brain-wasting livestock disease was confirmed in America in 2003. This April, however, President Lee Myung-bak gave in to industry pressure and issued an edict that lifted his country's ban.

Bad move. Consumers exploded all over Lee, who became the first Korean president brought to his knees by steak. The official American response is to depict South Koreans as silly, scared of a bugaboo in their burgers. But is it a bugaboo?

The ones being silly are our own ag officials and corporate beef purveyors. They could easily assure our customers that the beef we ship to them is free of mad-cow disease by conducting a test on each cow as it goes to slaughter. Called the rapid test, this cheap, simple, reliable screening tool can detect the disease even in animals that do not yet show any "mad" symptoms, giving slaughterhouses the ability to prevent all tainted cows from entering the food supply.

The Bush administration, however, refuses to implement such a system or even to let private companies use the rapid test on their own. Instead, the department and the giant meat exporters it serves arrogantly insist that the world must simply trust that every ounce of America's beef is pure because we say it is.

It's not Korean consumers who are crazy — it's our own public officials.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.

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