10/24/2011 02:16 EDT | Updated 12/24/2011 05:12 EST

Meat sector urges Ottawa to ink South Korea free trade deal, millions at stake

Canada's meat industry says it stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year unless Ottawa moves more quickly to sign a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Earlier this month, the United States signed such a trade deal, which means its beef and pork producers will face much lower tariffs than their Canadian counterparts.

The Canadian Pork Council warns that without a similar deal, Canada could lose $300 million a year in business, as well as farm and meat processing jobs.

"With the recent ratification of the Korean free-trade agreement by the U.S. Congress, the Canadian red meat industry is very concerned that further delay in concluding Canadian free-trade talks with South Korea will seriously undermine the competitiveness of the pork and beef sectors," said council chairman Jurgen Preugschas.

"It would put more of our producers out of business."

The European Union negotiated a free-trade deal with South Korea that went into effect in July. Australia hopes to ink a deal by the end of the year.

South Korea is Canada's third-largest pork market and was once Canada's fourth-largest beef market.

Canadian producers are frustrated with Ottawa's slower approach. They say South Korean buyers will naturally favour suppliers from countries they have trade deals with.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says the lack of an agreement will hurt the group's plan to export $65 million in beef products to the Asian country.

South Korea closed its border to Canadian beef during the mad cow disease scare, but has agreed to resume accepting some beef products, hopefully before the end of December.

“Almost at the very moment we hope Korea lifts its prohibition on Canadian beef, they will be reducing the tariff on U.S. beef which could well negate our market access gain,” said Travis Toews, president of the cattlemen's association.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says the federal government wants to focus on renewed beef exports to South Korea before resuming negotiations for a free-trade deal. Talks have been stalled since 2008. No new meetings are scheduled.

"We wanted to get the beef situation out of the way," Ritz said in Ottawa on Monday.

"It looks like we are still on time for the end of this calendar year to move forward on beef. Certainly that is a good solid signal to us that they are serious ... about a Canada-Korea free-trade agreement. We are more than happy to sit down and expedite that process."

The pork council's latest warning to the government follows more than a year of lobbying for Ottawa to do more to spur free-trade talks with South Korea.

On March 7 the council wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that said the industry urgently needed his help to get a free-trade deal.

In the letter, Preugschas and Brian Read, president of the Canadian Meat Council, told Harper that they've been knocking on doors for years to explain the importance of the Korean market.

"We normally would not bring this issue to you, prime minister. We have no choice. We need your help — we need the completion of these negotiations to become a matter of high priority."

The letter goes on to say that the industry cannot rely on "hope" to provide the markets it badly needs because "hope" is not a sound business strategy.

Preugschas said the new trade challenge comes as Canada has been increasing pork exports to South Korea after a prolonged industry downturn.

"Our producers have been under siege and in difficulty for the last five years. We are just starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

"Ten per cent of our exports are going to Korea. If you take that away, that is a tremendous amount of economic activity to take out of the Canadian economy."