South Korea could announce in about a week a decision to resume US beef imports based on its inspections of US beef processing plants, an agriculture ministry official said.

South Korea, once the third-largest export market for US beef, agreed in January to resume imports but has delayed implementing its decision several times out of concern over safeguards against mad cow disease at US processing facilities.

South Korea has dispatched a beef plant inspection team to the United States.

“We will hold an experts’ meeting this week based on reports of the delegation,” said an official at the ministry.

If the reports raise no additional safety issues, Seoul will announce the resumption of US beef imports soon, he said.

South Korea imposed its ban on US beef imports in December 2003 after a reported case of mad cow disease in the United States.

In the agreement not yet implemented, South Korea said it would resume the imports of boneless US beef from cattle less than 30 months old.

Japan, once the leading foreign market for American beef, resumed imports last month. This has increased US pressure on South Korea to allow American beef back into the country.

However, thirty-six South Korean lawmakers sent a letter to President George W. Bush on Monday in which they said the safety of US meat was still in question.

“We would like to urge the US to stop calling for resumption of US beef imports in Korea until the safety of the meat is scientifically proven,” the letter said.

The United States once accounted for 68%of South Korea’s beef market, or some $850 million worth of products. (Reuters)