South Korea has been on a drive to improve its local food safety regulations especially for meat and meat products, for which it has committed to improving in the first half of 2021.
The country has also has a long history of being fearful of mad cow disease since as far back as 2003 when the government banned imports of US beef over such fears, and public protests even broke out five years later in 2008 when this ban was reversed. The reversal was upheld despite the protests.
“Foods and food additives made from ruminant animals or their by-products from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, the United States [and 30 more countries] are banned from being imported into South Korea,” said the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) via the formal notification document published as an emphasis of meat import regulations.
“This is in accordance with Article 21 of the Food Sanitation Act which prohibits the import or sale of specific foods that MFDS has found to be harmful or presents a risk of harm.”
Ruminant animals are four-legged herbivorous mammals with a unique digestive system containing four stomachs including cows, goats, sheep, deer, buffalo, camels and so on.
MFDS did not specify the reason for this notification, but the 36 countries included in the ban list all have a known history of mad cow disease, scientifically known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
This would also explain why certain by-products continue to be allowed even under this ruling such as dairy products, gelatin, collagen and fats – BSE can be transmitted to humans via the consumption of foods contaminated with the disease-causing prions (misfolded proteins), but no evidence has been found of this being present in milk, skin or fat.
Meat-based products however were not excluded here, because although the disease-causing prions are not generally found in the commonly eaten meat parts (muscle tissue), it is found in nerve tissue (brain, spinal cord, nerves), intestines, eyes and tonsils and the risk of contamination is considerably high in a slaughterhouse.
This means that foreign processed meat products such as ground beef, sausages, and burger patties, as well as meat snacks such as beef jerky have not been excluded from this ban.
That said, even some of the ‘low-risk’ products such as fat and collagen require a government certificate to declare its compliance with food safety parameters.
“Products such as processed beef tallow (fat) can still be imported into South Korea provided the product carries a certificate from the exporting country’s government declaring that insoluble impurities are no more than 0.15%,” said MFDS.
“This is the same for ruminant skin-based ingredients such as collagen and gelatin [manufactured from facilities and under methods approved by MFDS] – imports are allowed with a government certificate.”
MFDS also urged foreign manufacturers from all 36 countries, including processed meat product firms, wishing to make an appeal to send in a request and if said products are proven to cause no harm to humans, permission may be granted.
These processed meat products fall under strict supervision as it is hard to determine the age of the cow which meat has been used to make the product, especially if made overseas, but at present certain fresh meat imports are still allowed - representing an opening for Korea-based food firms dealing in meat products to import fresh meat and produce processed meat products locally.
This is especially so as such products are also currently seeing a surge in prices in the foodservice sector – according to various local reports, fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Lotteria all increased their burger prices from February whilst the nation’s average salary rate remained the same, decreasing consumer appetite for eating such products out-of-home, so the likelihood is high that they would turn to purchasing retailed versions of these products.
Another factor supporting this is that imported beef is far cheaper than local Korean beef (Hanwoo) – in 2020, the price of Hanwoo stood at KRW5,993 (US$5.38) per 100g as opposed to KRW2,460 (US$2.21) for US beef and 2,347 (US$2.11) for Australian beef.
MFDS is still allowing for the import of fresh meat from animals below 30 months of age, as cows 30 months or older are considered to be at high risk of being infected with the abnormal prion. For beef in particular, imports from only nine countries are allowed (Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand, Netherlands, Uruguay and the US) whereas lamb, mutton and deer imports are only allowed in from Australia or New Zealand.
Given this situation, it is also highly unlikely that South Korea will be able to further tighten the regulations surrounding raw meat to stop imports, especially for beef, as the market would be unable to sustain depending solely on local production alone. Government data has shown South Korea’s beef self-sufficiency rates to fall from 36.5% to 32% over the past decade, even as per capita consumption jumped from 8.8kg in 2010 to 13kg in 2019.