South Korea's markets are once again open to Canadian beef imports after an eight-year ban, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced Friday.
Ritz and International Trade Minister Ed Fast said the government, working closely with the beef industry, finally convinced South Korea that Canadian beef is safe.
"Ultimately we were able to overcome the last few science-based issues. We were able to satisfy them that in fact Canadian beef is in fact safe, it is the highest quality beef in the world, and the Korean market should be open to it," said Fast.
He and Ritz made the announcement at a farm in Spruce Grove, Alta., and described the reopening of South Korea's market as a "significant breakthrough" and "a big step forward."
South Korea stopped buying Canadian beef after bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, hit in Canada in 2003.
Effective immediately, South Korea will allow Canadian beef under 30 months to be imported.
"We appreciate South Korea taking this important step," said Ritz.
The ministers and their departments had tried for years to impress upon the Koreans that there was no scientific basis for the ban on beef and when that failed, they turned to the World Trade Organization to review the trade restriction.
Last June, Ottawa and Seoul agreed on a process to restore access by the end of 2011, prompting Canada to formally request a suspension of the WTO proceedings.
But Fast said despite that progress, full access to the market was far from certain and he urged his Korean counterpart at a meeting in December to reach a negotiated settlement and to recognize "the scientific facts that confirm the high quality and safe nature of Canadian beef."
"The Korean government heard our message and their decision to restore access is the direct result of our government's actions," he said.
South Korea was the last major Asian market to maintain the ban on Canadian beef.
Canada Beef Inc., the marketing division of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, had said reopening the market could be worth $30 million to Canadian producers by 2015.
Travis Toews from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association thanked the government for its work on the file.
Toews said his industry was "decimated" by the BSE episode and that the lack of trade in one of Asia's key markets is one reason why the size of Canada's cattle herd has shrunk since 2003.
Reopening South Korea's market to beef under 30 months is a step towards finally closing the book on BSE, but the battle for full access to all beef products isn't over yet, said Toews.
"We haven't experienced closure yet. There's still a number of key markets where we need expanded access in order to return to pre-2003 market access levels," he said, noting full access to Korea hasn't been gained, and there are still barriers in other markets such as Japan and Mexico.
Toews said he is confident Canada can regain its share of the market.