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Other Voices: The Courage to Counter Popular Myths

14:56PM Jul 29, 2008

Behind the mad cow disease protests, we are told, lie the wrong personnel decisions President Lee Myung-bak made. People are angry at seeing rich, incompetent people appointed to the Cabinet and as presidential secretaries. We are told we owe the uproar to a major concession Lee made to the U.S. so he could stay overnight at Camp David. The facts appear to support those assertions.

It is often said that our history is unusual. Having long lived under the domination of neighboring powers, Koreans are highly sensitive to issues where foreign powers appear to discriminate against or ignore us. "Korea has become a developed country. Why do you still have the feeling of being victimized?" asks a foreign diplomat in Seoul. He is ignorant of our history. The charge that we somehow surrendered our quarantine rights had a great impact on public sentiment. The provisions in question appear in agreements the U.S. has with other countries. But many Koreans were indignant. The Lee administration, by ignoring deep-seated public feelings, has had an awful time.

The protests started with the allegation that you will catch the human form of mad cow disease if you eat U.S. beef. Wrong personnel decisions, hasty negotiations and public sentiment: these all feed into the protests, but the basic cause is BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy]. In a Gallup poll, 33.2% of respondents answered there is a big chance of catching mad cow disease if you eat U.S. beef, and 33.3% said there is some chance. The protests are due to the perception that American beef can cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

Perceptions versus truth. If that perception were true, the Korea–U.S. beef accord could simply be repealed right away. There would be no need for renegotiation. However important our annual trade surplus of nearly $10 billion (U.S.) with the U.S. may be, we cannot afford to worry about exports when human lives are at stake.

The problem is that no one has ever died from vCJD after eating U.S. beef. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not an agency that makes light of such an issue. Now, the American media do note problems in beef production. But if none of the 300 million Americans has died of vCJD, it must be assumed that the risk of the disease is extremely low. Otherwise, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, one of the most thorough food safety institutes in the world, would not sit idle. And not only has no one died in America from vCJD, no one has died of it anywhere in the world this year.

There were three cattle confirmed to have been affected by mad cow disease in the U.S. They were born before feed made of powdered animal meat and bones was banned in 1997. Of U.S. cattle born since 1997, none has been confirmed to have BSE. Though cattle older than 30 months are considered an issue, no instance of BSE has been verified even among cattle as old as 120 months. This is the result of inspections in America that are 9.9 times stricter than elsewhere. Hence 96 countries in the world import American beef without restrictions. The number of cattle older than 30 months slaughtered in the U.S. per year exceeds 7 million, most of which is eaten by Americans.

But here, influential networks and the online media have done little to cover such facts. Public perception in Korea remains that if you eat U.S. beef, you get vCJD.

When a majority of the people believe something false, journalists find it difficult to write about it. In a democratic society, it's easier for them to write articles that contradict the government than to write stories countering popular myths. Remember the Confucian adage, "Examine a thing without fail even when all others claim to love it; examine it without fail even when all others claim to hate it."

—Adapted from a column by Yang Sang-hoon in the English version of the Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo.