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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Canada Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has given South Korea an ultimatum to agree on a timeline for resuming acceptance of Canadian beef or face a WTO trade challenge.
South Korea is one of two countries, along with mainland China, that has refused to reopen its borders to Canadian beef since the 2003 discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Western Canada.
Ritz said he met with South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and Agriculture Minister Chang Tae-pyong in Seoul and told them they have until the end of March to agree to a realistic timeline to reopen to Canadian beef, possibly as early as spring.
"They seemed rattled (Thursday) that we actually flew over and met with them face to face to deliver this message," Ritz said, adding he wanted to meet in person so "nothing was lost in translation. They felt they can hide with the distance away that they are . . . They are scrambling."
For South Korea to "remain honorable in the eyes of the world," it must live up to WTO requirements, he said.
Failing to meet the Canadian deadline will result in Canada starting the consultative stage of a WTO challenge, he said. It will also affect ongoing talks with South Korea about a free trade agreement, he said.
"We left the Koreans with no illusion that the FTA is on hold until we get this beef issue worked through and resolved to Canadian producers' benefit," Ritz told reporters in a conference call. "It makes it very difficult to move forward when they want to just hive off a very significant part of our exports and hold it in abeyance while we move forward with all smiles and chuckles. I'm not prepared to do that. . . the Conservative government in Ottawa is not prepared to do that."
Ritz said he thinks South Korea's refusal to accept Canadian beef stems from protectionism of its own industry.
South Korea was the Canadian beef industry's fourth-best export market in 2002, buying 17,000 tons of beef valued at C$60 million, said the Canada Beef Export Federation.
The Canadian beef industry has struggled with low prices, high feed rates and new U.S. labeling rules that farmers fear will discourage packers from buying Canadian.
Beef federation President Ted Haney said opening Korea "is incredibly important." He said Ritz is the first Canadian agriculture minister to visit South Korea in five years.
Fears of mad cow disease have made North American beef a touchy subject in South Korea. The announcement last year that it would resume imports of U.S. beef sparked public protests.
The fatal disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), affects a cow's nervous system and causes brain degeneration. People can become infected and die from a variant of the disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by eating infected beef.
The disease spreads to cattle through contaminated feed.
Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by David Gregorio