The country has been battling food poisoning outbreaks, especially during the summer season, for some years. This year alone over 300 people fell victim to a series of food poisoning incidents mostly involving gimbap (seaweed rice rolls) made with various ingredients including vegetables, eggs, mushrooms, or processed meats.
The South Korean National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service has issued a statement to revise local food labelling regulations to include mandatory food safety phrases on-pack in hopes of preventing further such incidents.
“To ensure that foods are safe for consumption and prevent food safety events such as food poisoning, the inclusion of food safety phrases on the outer surface of packaging materials for vegetables and other fresh produce will be made mandatory starting October 14 2021,” said the service’s President Lee Ju-Myeong via the formal statement.
“This will include instructions for handling the foods such as ‘washing’ or ‘heating’ prior to consumption so that consumers are aware that such steps need to be taken before the food is considered safe to be eaten.
“Only foods which are peeled and eaten such as pineapples, tangerines, and watermelons; or will [otherwise have the skin removed before consumption] such as sweet potatoes, peaches and carrots, are excluded from this mandatory labelling.”
Lee also emphasised some key items subject to the mandatory labelling, which are likely also major culprits when it comes to food poisoning occurrences.
These included: Mushrooms of almost all variants from enoki to oyster; peeled fruits and vegetables or those which can be eaten with the peel e.g. apples, grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli; as well as other fresh produce which has been processed via washing, peeling, trimming or cutting, and packaged for retail.
For mushrooms, the packaging label must display the safety wording and warning ‘Do not consume as is but cook thoroughly before eating’ or just ‘Cook and eat’. Peeled fruits and vegetables will need to have the label ‘Wash before eating’ and other processed fresh produce will need to contain one of the above depending on the product.
“Failure by food companies and producers that fail to comply with these new regulations and do not include these food safety phrases on their labels will be subject to penalties including suspensions for up to three months in length, or monetary fines for negligence,” said Lee.
In a separate statement, the country’s Minister of Food and Drug Safety Kim Kang-rip also stressed the importance of greater vigilance to prevent food poisoning outbreaks amidst the country’s hotter-than-usual temperatures and ongoing battle with COVID-19.
“Ensuring food safety and preventing the risk of food poisoning in advance is crucial to not only protect public health, but also reduce the burden of quarantines and the health care sector amidst the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said.
“In particular, we call upon all food manufacturing and processing companies to pay special attention to overall manufacturing and transportation management to avoid any food safety accidents occurring.”
The National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service also recently executed a crackdown on country-of-origin labelling targeted at some 5,000 manufacturers and sellers of tofu and other soy products.
“The reason for the crackdown was due to the poor local harvest production, increase in imports, as well as increase in demand last year,” said Lee.
According to numbers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA), local soybean production in South Korea dropped 22.9% from 105,000 tons in 2019 to 81,000 tons in 2020, leading to an increase in pricing from KRW5,224 (US$4.40) in June 2020 to KRW6,508 (US$5.48) in June 2021. Import volumes increased 5.1% from 1.26 million tons in 2019 to 1.33 million tons in 2020.
A total of 111 companies were found in violation of origin labelling regulations, and the most problematic products were tofu at 66 cases (58.4%), soybeans at 28 cases (24.8%), soybean flour at 11 cases (9.7%) and bean sprouts at six cases (5.3%).
“Several firms that sold products as made from domestic soybeans when in fact the beans originated from overseas sources such as the United States or China; or if the beans were from a different local state than they declared, were subject to criminal prosecution,” said Lee.
“Violators can be imprisoned for not more than seven years or subjected to a fine not exceeding KRW100mn (US$84,334). We will be checking on and doing more promotions on the country of origin labelling for agri-food products as the festival season nears.”