(Reuters) - South Korea lifted its nine-year import ban on Canadian beef on Friday, Canada's agriculture and trade ministers said, removing one of the obstacles to a free-trade deal.
South Korea is the last major beef-importing country to agree to resume imports of Canadian beef, since a 2003 case of mad-cow disease in Canada. It will now accept beef from cattle under 30 months of age.
"Improved trade with South Korea is a priority for the Canadian agriculture industry and the South Korean government's co-operation in restoring access to Canadian beef will further strengthen trade relations between our two countries," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said at a news conference on an Alberta farm.
Free trade talks between Canada and South Korea have been on hold, raising worries by the Canadian meat industry that they will lose ground to the United States, which has a free trade agreement in place.
"Up to now, we had a very significant trade irritant with our beef access. We're now at a point where we could resolve that and I think that bodes well as we explore new opportunities to deepen our trade relationship with South Korea," said Trade Minister Ed Fast.
Canada is the world's third-biggest beef shipper and in 2002, prior to the ban, South Korea was its fourth biggest beef market. The new access could be worth C$30 million ($29.7 million) annually for the beef industry by 2015, according to industry estimates.
"Opening Korea will increase the competitiveness of our processing sector and that's critical to maximizing ... returns of Canadian producers," said Travis Toews, a rancher and president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association. Still, he said Canada faces stiff competition from U.S. and Australian beef, which have had long access to South Korea.
Canadian officials said on December 30 that Seoul had ratified import health requirements for Canadian beef, but several steps remained. South Korea has now published the approval of those requirements and notified Ottawa that all certification conditions are in place, the Canadian government said.
The ban is removed for all interested Canadian beef shippers. Cargill and XL Foods are the biggest beef processors in the country.
Ottawa complained about South Korea's beef ban to the World Trade Organization, but suspended its case last year after Seoul said it would resume trade by the end of 2011.
Key restrictions remain in place from some other markets.
China agreed to partly lift restrictions on Canadian beef in 2010, but commercial shipments have not yet resumed.
Japan, which only accepts Canadian beef under 21 months of age, is reviewing its import regulations and could expand access for Canada and other countries.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; editing by Rob Wilson