South Korea's imports of U.S. beef nearly doubled in 2010 from a year earlier due largely to dwindling concerns over its safety here, the government said Tuesday.
The farm ministry said the country imported 125,681 tons of beef from the U.S. last year, up 97 percent from 63,817 tons tallied in 2009.
The total effectively exceeded amounts imported by Seoul before the U.S. beef import ban went into effect in late 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was reported in the North American country.
South Korea reopened its market to U.S. beef in 2008, although meat can only be provided from animals under 30 months old to alleviate domestic concerns about mad cow disease that can be fatal to humans.
Because of the mad cow scare, there were widespread national protests after Seoul agreed to fully reopen its market, which caused the government to ask Washington for minor modifications to beef trading conditions.
"Initially, consumers stayed clear of U.S. beef, and that hurt sales, but because it is priced much more cheaply than local meat, there has been a steady rise in demand, particularly among restaurants and catering services," a ministry official said.
The severest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease to hit the country, which forced quarantine authorities to cull and bury 150,000 cattle since late November, may have influenced consumer sentiment to a limited extent, he added.
The ministry, which based its findings on data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also said South Korea was the fourth-largest export marked for beef in 2010, following Mexico, Canada and Japan.
Although beef imports surged, pork imports fell 15 percent on-year in 2010. South Korea bought 99,901 tons of pork from the U.S. last year, down from 117,157 tons reported in the previous year, according to the ministry.