OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is optimistic South Korea will open up its market to Canadian beef by the end of this year and is willing to kick-start stalled free trade talks with the country, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Monday.
"It looks like we're still on time for the end of this calendar year to move forward on beef," Ritz told reporters, referring to South Korea's promise in June to lift a ban by year-end on Canadian beef imports that it had put in place due to concerns about BSE disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in Canadian cattle.
"Certainly that's a good, solid signal to us that they're serious about the Canada-Korea free trade agreement. We're more than happy to sit down and expedite that process," he said.
Ritz warned earlier this month that if South Korea did not lift its ban on schedule, Ottawa would take the matter back to the World Trade Organization.
South Korea is the last major beef importing country to resume imports of Canadian beef after BSE was discovered in a Canadian cattle herd in 2003.
Canada is the world's third-largest exporter of pork and beef. In 2002, before the ban, South Korea was Canada's fourth biggest beef market.
Canadian cattle and hog industry groups said on Friday that Ottawa must resume broader free trade negotiations with South Korea or risk losing export opportunities to the United States, which has already ratified a bilateral trade deal with Seoul.
Ritz said that with the beef dispute resolved, broader free trade talks could continue.
"We've always said that the free trade talks - we're more than amenable to kick those off again. We wanted to get the beef situation out of the way," he said.
Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Peter Galloway