On the “US Beef Scare” in Korea

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Beef Protests '08

I wrote a comment on Marmot’s for the first time in a while, but the comment hasn’t shown up. (Perhaps the number of links in it got it caught in the filter.) So I thought I’d post it here, in case it doesn’t show up for a while yet.

WangKon936 posted about popular Korean concerns regarding the changes that Lee Myung Bak’s Administration has made to the regulations on the importing of American beef in the USA, restrictions put in place in 2003, and relaxed somewhat in 2006, out of fear of mad cow disease. His comments imply that Korean opposition to the import of American beef are mostly of a moral-panic type, and irrational, and he cites a couple of articles from the Chosun Ilbo to back up this opinion — if it deserves to be called an opinion. He also compares the real dangers of mad cow disease — which hasn’t killed many people yet, but does have a 100% fatality rate and is linked to completely avoidable agricultural practices that have long been known to be risky — to the admittedly irrational fear of “Fan Death” in Korea.

But the real kicker is the (predictable) backwash of snide commentary offered by all kinds of Marmot’s readers. It was especially unsettling to see people pile on the vitriol because I’d just come home from the demonstration downtown and had been blown away by it. People were respectful, peaceful, and in general wonderful — and considering my recent negative experience and current mood, that’s saying a lot.


I’ll post some more pictures of the demo in a bit. But here’s my main comment to the commenters at Marmot’s Hole, which, as I say, still hasn’t shown up, hopefully because of the links and not because of my harshness tripping some automated language filter:

UPDATE: Since my original comment is now visible there, and I’ve written more since, you can see all of my comments at Marmot’s. If you want to, you can read just the original text here, if you login first, but there’s more at Marmot’s, so…

You know, a lot of you commenters should stop pointing at the splinter in Koreans’ eyes and worry about the log in your own… the ignorance on display in these comments above is stunning, definitely the 뚝배기 calling the 냄비 black!Correct me (with references, not empty bluster and insults that so many here love to banter about) if I’m wrong, but:1. Roh’s Administration wasn’t the one that recently rescinded all beed-inspection duties to the USA, or opened the beef market completely to all US beef. Whatever Roh’s faults, it was Lee’s administration that has opened the market to Korean beef — and, as far as the public understands it, rescinded the majority of rights of inspection to American authorities, too — and when Lee was questioned about it, he was, let’s say, “evasive”… saying, “Oh, I think I did that in my sleep!” (here) and “Oh, have you found [those rights of inspection] yet?” (here) was how his patronizing attempts at humorous dismissal — which have angered many people — have gone.2. If Koreans are overreacting, then how come the US FDA enacted the biggest beef recall in history in February, and widened restrictions very recently to include pet food? Oh, yeah, no, there’s no problem. Korean people should just shut up, quit complaining, eat those “downer cows” that the American government has deemed unfit to feed American dogs and cats, because LMB, the GNP, and commenters at the Marmot’s say it’s okay, and just hope that there’s not an outbreak of CMJ here in thirty years. Right. Got it.(Of course, if there is an outbreak, I bet the same shameful subset of commenters will be snarkily mocking all the “sponge-brained Koreans” with as much glee their elderly forms can muster.)

3. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is caused by prions. Prions are not e-coli, and no, they are not killed by adequate cooking or other normal food preparation. Sterilization is actually very difficult. So no, cooking your beef properly won’t remove the prions, unless you’re steaming it under high pressure for a long time. Oh, and by the way, it’s also heritable — 10-15% of cases are inherited. So if you’re lucky enough to catch it along the way, you can pass it on to your unborn children, too. And if your cattle population has a somatic outbreak,

4. The “Gene M” that was mocked by the poster isn’t a Korean pseudoscience fantasy — it’s actually a gene for the encoding of amino acids, and everyone has two alleles for it, encoding either methionine or valine or both. So you can be MM, MV, or VV depending on which alleles you have. 40% of humanity is MM, and is discussed here, and yes, the long and the short is that there is evidence that a genetic determinant for susceptibility exists. It hasn’t yet been demonstrated in humans, but there’s a reason we test with mice — a lot of results we find with them do apply to us in some way or other. So the Chosun’s claim that there’s no link is, really, downplaying the evidence. As for whether Koreans have a higher concentration of the MM pair, this article is the source of the 94% statistic. You’d think that finding would have been contested by someone since its peer-reviewed publication in 2004 if it were error-ridden, wouldn’t you? (It didn’t very take long for Dr. Hwang to be outed, did it, Jeffery? Or is Hwang now grounds to dismiss all scientific work by Koreans, or all work published in prestigious science journals? )

5. At the demonstration by the Cheonggyecheon tonight — which was peaceful, and predictably has not been discussed here at all — protesters shouted “조선일보쓰레기!” (“The Chosun Ilbo [is] garbage!”) and “동아일보 쓰레기!” (“The Dong-A Daily [is] Garbage!”). (Among many other chants inviting Lee to eat madcow beef, calling Lee a mad cow and a and garbage himself, and demanding that various media outlets wake up and think straight.)

How ironic that the people some of you were mocking for their naiveté were saying the same thing about the newspapers that y’all were saying (and so many of us think). I’m not naively saying all these people are paragons of reason — I’m sure lots of them believe in Fan Death, for example — but at the same time, they’re doing the best they can with what their education and society have given them, and they’re raising their voices on an issue on which, after all, their position isn’t unreasonable. It’s rather similar to the British population’s position, and we don’t mock the Brits in their cautiousness. Since when was that cause for mockery?

Frankly, it’s not surprising that y’all think it’s cool to mock Koreans in their desire not to import beef that may, yes, may, pose risks due to idiotic and rather ill-conceived agribusiness practices in the US and Europe. After all, the outbreak of CJD was mainly focused on Britain, but Britain outlawed the agricultural practices that seem to have led to it long ago, and the US dealt with it much later. Why should Koreans be happy to deal with the risks that American agribusiness gambled on, and has persisted in even when the writing was on the [British] wall?

By the way, personally, I found the demonstration tonight remarkable in a few ways: in that many young people showed up — I’m hearing estimates of 130,000 people and I’d believe it, as the area was so crowded many would-be participants couldn’t get in — and in that it was peaceful and very civil, in that people were engaged in some kind of response to media distortions of the facts.

It was actually pretty inspiring, to be honest. But hey, I know most of you want to snidely mock these people for voicing concerns and opinions. How dare they rise beyond your low, snide expectations.

For those of you who care to see what the people objecting really look like, another demo will occur at tomorrow 5pm by the “ddong-tap” (the ugly unicorn horn tower thing in the Cheongyecheon, right outside the Dong-A Ilbo.

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10 thoughts on “On the “US Beef Scare” in Korea

  1. Kangnamdragon,

    You comment won’t be appearing as it’s mere insult-trolling and it includes racist language. This is not The Marmot’s, and I don’t tolerate crap like that.

    However, I wish to note that my Korean fiancée and I are planning to leave Korea too. We’re not blind to the problems and “backwardness” you see — far from it, we’ve experienced a number of symptoms of this problem ourselves. I just don’t choose to hate the society from bottom to brim, as you seem to do.

    Trolling will not be tolerated. Into the spam filter you go. Move along, kiddo.

  2. Gord,

    I respect your analysis of the situation, but this has way more to do with protectionist economic policies than it does with protecting the people from bad American beef.

  3. Rob,

    Actually, I agree that this has to so with economics/politics, too — more than the realistic risk of CJD outbreak in Korea. (Though I think people do have the right to demand freedom from that risk, however slim, I’m nervous at the more pressing issues that have gotten almost no press, here or abroad.)

    But, then, I don’t happen to think that protectionism is always bad, and besides, nobody’s protesting against Aussie beef. The US economic model doesn’t work for every country, as John Ralston Saul pointed out about its implementation in Canada, and the experience with CJD in Britain certainly does pose a precedent for people being very careful about imports of food products. (Especially when there are manifest problems in the industry in the exporter, as there right now are.)

    I’d prefer if the Korean public were even more freaked out about the bad IP law that’s required in the FTA, which poses a much more dire and certain risk to Korean industry and innovation. But if beef is what they want to base their objections on, I’m not one to mock them on those objections.

  4. Oh thank god – I was so disgusted with what I was reading at Marmot’s Hole (Chosun Ilbo is their best source? really??). Good to see someone who actually went to these protests and saw what they were. I think the beef is really the straw that broke the donkey’s back though; those students and people have been unhappy about many of Lee’s proposals (school autonomy, health insurance privatization, etc).

  5. Baedol,

    Nice blog, by the way! I heard you visited Lime’s site too. :)

    I should note that I had more to say about the demos here and that I was much less impressed with the second one, mostly because it turned the participants into a mere audience. (Also, some idiot installed a stage with bellydancers and synchronized pop dancing on it right in the middle of the demo area. Idiots!)

    But yeah, I think you’re right that the protests are really, deep down, about way more than beef: they’re about understandable anxieties regarding Lee’s outrageous and intolerable policy initiatives, and about his apparent recklessness.

    Many of my students put it this way: they felt like they had a choice between economic growth or decency and moral leadership. (Remarkable, since the economy was doing quite well, really; it’s the distribution that’s having problems.) Their feeling is that they bet on growth, and now they’re losing out on both.

    I’m pretty sure Lime isn’t the only person eager to leave considering the mess that Lee’s set out to make of this country. It’s a shame… though maybe it’s through this kind of disaster that the polity will wake up and work on reforms and the establishment of an active political life, instead of this “no-debate, just election” crap we had with Lee.

  6. PS: Yeah, it’s hard to get good sources in Korea when your Korean isn’t so hot. I so wish that there was an English version of 시사인 but of course, there isn’t, so I have to nag my fiancée to give me the big picture rendition of what’s up in that publication every once in a while.

  7. Interesting take on things I guess.

    Protesting on facts with valid points is a good way to make a statement. These protests, however, were based on rumors, myths, and outright lies.

    I am not saying that there is no risk with eating US beef (or any food for that matter) – but the risks and issues that are there should at least be known by some of the protesters (yeah a generalization…but it seems to hold true).

    I see this issue as just a convenient way for the recently booted “progressives” to attack the present administration – which I can assume by your use of heavily loaded words is just fine and dandy.

    The worst part is that the sick cowards are using kids (through fear) to do it.

  8. Goat,

    Well, you know, if the presidential elections had involved, say, a debate, I might be able to hold the polity to expectations of reasoned discussion in a public forum. But even the President isn’t up for that kind of thing.

    I don’t doubt some distortions have crept into the debate, but a lot of that is clearing up now and the more sensible arguments are coming up, as others have noted.

    And by the way, were you at the protests? I was, and it was mostly (ie. the vast majority of participants were) young adults (or older adults) and not children. I think you’re buying some of the Cho/Joong/Do party line there — a standard move to discredit the protest.

    As for progressives attacking Lee, there’s an element of that — after all, he’s got a weak mandate and got in on a large minority, right? (And with a polity that largely was convinced on one issue: his economic “prowess.”) I think he has many more protests ahead of him, and crackdowns will not gain him credibility in the face of them. But really, the policies look bad to anyone who knows anything about such policies elsewhere. Privatizing water? Privatizing the health insurance system? These are much worse for the vast majority than the current system, something most people in places that have experienced such policies would agree.

  9. (Some disjointed writing coming addressing different points)

    I’m just saying that there are more credible ways of getting your point across – both from a domestic and international perspective.

    Focus on the percentage of cows being tested, use American sources and consumer groups advocating the same thing, etc etc.

    Of course the implication was not that there would be children at the protest, but that it was just one tool being used (fear in children to force the parents).

    Either way the interested parties were quite clever in mobilizing those that probably had little or no idea about the facts of the matter.

    The lefties can attack him all they want (as he does have some ridiculous ideas) but they should (I am asking for a lot out of politicians here) try to do it with at least a touch of integrity.

    In reference to free speech – I don’t think I would go so far as to protect malicious and unfactual speech with the intention of inciting fear and panic in order to achieve political goals. But that’s just me….

  10. Goat,

    Sure, well, I don’t see anyone on either side willing to discuss data, facts, and so on.

    And frankly, the onus is on the government to inform people of the rationale behind its policies. When the government dismisses concerns by shrugging them off, instead of providing information, a huge information void is left open. This leaves people very much more susceptible to rumors and so on than they would be with a government that seemed to be making an effort to be transparent and open with its reasons for doing things. It’s funny that you have a higher standard of conduct — your demand of integrity — for the people than for the president and the administration. Somehow that rings false for me.

    As for free speech: well I don’t support hateful speech, of course. The people utter threats to the President are acting foolishly, and that needs to stop. The people who are speaking angrily, even if they are misinformed, have a right to speak. But the misinformation would not be anywhere near as much of an issue were the facts to be presented openly, fairly, with reference to data, information, and so on.

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