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Taiwan curbs US beef imports in latest Asia trade frictions

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"Science and facts – not politics or hyperbole – should govern our trade and economic relations," US trade and agriculture officials said in a statement. "This is a serious matter that concerns us greatly."

Politicized issue

Japan banned US beef imports in late 2003, after a single cow in the state of Washington was found to have mad cow disease. South Korea, Taiwan, and other Asian countries quickly followed suit. US beef exports plunged, hit especially hard by the ban in the No. 1 export market, Japan.

Japan reopened to some US beef imports in 2006, but restrictions remain.

South Korea's reopening to beef in 2008 under a US-friendly president sparked weeks of massive protests and a political crisis that had a nationalist, anti-American edge. Seoul ended up watering down a previous agreement with Washington, much as Taipei is doing now.

Park Kie-Duck, former president of South Korea's independent Sejong Institute, says anti-US beef protests were led by Web-savvy students who spread fears online. But the issue has resonated more broadly in East Asia because of countries' worry that their traditional agrarian identities are under threat.

"We see the agricultural industry as a kind of strategic industry, and people want to keep that industry safe," says Mr. Park. "That's why this issue is so sensitive."

In Taiwan, the scale of protests has been smaller, but emotions have also run high. Groceries and beef noodle restaurants have displayed anti-US beef logos.

On Tuesday, a man had the words "The people stand up" and a clenched fist tattooed to his back amid chanting anti-US beef protesters.

In late October, one student filmed himself eating what he claimed was a cow-dung burger in front of the Presidential Office, protesting that it was safer to eat than American beef. (See videoclip here.)

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