Friday, October 12, 2012

Arsenic and old rice

Late last month I reported on South Korea's decision to suspend imports of American rice because arsenic was found in the rice supply. Well, now just over two weeks later, Seoul has decided to resume the imports because the levels of arsenic do not appear to pose any significant health risks.

From Reuters:
South Korea has lifted a suspension of U.S. rice imports and sales, made on concerns about possible contamination with arsenic, after a test showed no significant risk for human consumption, the agriculture ministry said on Friday.

South Korea temporarily suspended imports and sales of U.S. rice last month after a U.S. watchdog group urged the United States to set limits for arsenic, a known human carcinogen, in rice.

"The arsenic levels proved not to be critical based upon the Korea Food & Drug Administration's evaluation of the danger, and discussion with an experts' committee," the ministry said in a statement.

The resumption started from Friday.

The statement said that South Korea would consider setting limits for all arsenic levels, including inorganic arsenic, in rice.

In the United States, tests of more than 60 popular products showed most contained some level of arsenic, leading Consumer Reports to urge the government to set limits for the chemical in rice.

South Korea imported 101,490 tonnes of U.S. rice last year, according to the agriculture ministry last month.

Out of this year's planned imports of 90,901 tonnes, the ministry said 30,000 tonnes had been imported before the suspension and stocks of U.S. rice stood at 81,000 tonnes.
Long-time Monster Island readers have seen me trot out my old chinboista post time and time again, but  for you newbies, I'll give the short version: This is one of those issues that, if it appears on their radar, the pro-Pyongyang, anti-Seoul, anti-American leftist propaganda machinery will see as a golden opportunity in their efforts to whip up the populace against Washington and their allies in whatever administration is in the Blue House at the time (à la Mad Cow Disease in 2008 or the deaths of the two middle school girls run over by a USFK vehicle in 2002).

That this is about rice makes it all the more volatile an issue. You see, this staple has always been a very touchy subject with South Korean farmers and their leftist sponsors (ditto in Japan). The forced opening of South Korea's (and Japan's) rice markets almost killed ROK participation in the World Trade Organization and later the ROK-US Free-Trade Agreement. Rice is seen as almost sacred, a bond* between the people in the land, and it was anathema to import far cheaper rice from California that would upend the rice industry in Korea.

(In accordance with this idea, most Koreans have been willing to pay a lot more for Korean rice than imported rice, at least for rice eaten with a meal, if it meant preservation of the Korean rice sector. Ditto with Japanese consumers and homegrown Japanese rice. Cheaper imported rice often ends up being used in processed foods.)

And so now the chinboistas have the prospect that American rice may be killing Korean consumers by arsenic poisoning, and that could be one of those throw-everything-against-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks issues that actually sticks. With Park Geun-hye poised to win election to the Blue House in December, they are itching for an issue that will galvanize not just the left but the squishy middle as well, enough that it could bring one of the candidates less hostile to the North Korean regime into the Blue House.

As I noted in my chinboista post, the modus operandi is to try whatever works, because every now and then some issue (and it's hard to predict which ones) will resonate not just with leftist sympathizers but with the moderate middle (and some conservatives as well), often because there is some there there**.

And because of that, the Korea Food & Drug Administration's decision to allow arsenic-laced rice into the Korean market will be seen as bowing to Washington, with the Lee Myungbak administration easily painted as putting their pro-US kowtowing ahead of Korean lives. If some clever slogan can be formed with the Korean word for arsenic, piso (비소), it's all over.

And the reason the issue will take off is that, as the Reuters article mentions, the US has been irresponsible at setting appropriate standards on the issue of arsenic in the food. Sadly, if the chinboistas do try to turn this into an exercise in America-bashing, the merits of that argument will be utterly lost on the defenders of the US (especially those who side with the US over Korea no matter what the issue). As usual.

*Shintoburi (身土不二), a "four-character saying" that is also the slogan of the Nonghyup Farmers Cooperative, literally means "the body and the earth are one and the same": body+earth+not+two.

**And there was some there there with Mad Cow Disease, even though the risk was very low. The more salient point was that American beef is typically factory farmed in ways that are hazardous to consumers, be they Americans or Koreans or Japanese or whatever, and the chinboistas were able to latch onto some of those issues to make a scary case that Americans themselves should heed. 

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