Cross-border caution: South Korea expands food safety guidelines to include e-commerce sales

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

South Korea has expanded its food safety and monitoring guidelines to tighten control over products directly purchased by consumers from foreign countries, with implications for e-commerce. ©Getty Images
South Korea has expanded its food safety and monitoring guidelines to tighten control over products directly purchased by consumers from foreign countries, with implications for e-commerce. ©Getty Images

Related tags South korea Food safety

South Korea has expanded its food safety and monitoring guidelines to tighten control over food and beverage products that are directly purchased by consumers from foreign countries, with implications for items bought via e-commerce.

Previously, the local Food Sanitation Act was limited to food and beverage products which were imported into the country to be directly sold to local consumers, but evidently South Korean authorities have decided that this is not sufficient for public health protection.

The South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) recently published formal guidelines to govern ‘directly purchased overseas food products’ as purchased by consumers and brought back into the country, such as purchases done via e-commerce.

“The rise of non-contact purchasing due to e-commerce, competitive prices and wide variety has led this market size to grow continuously, [and] previously the Food Sanitation Law did not cover such products brought in for personal consumption as it only applied to foods and beverages for sale locally,”​ said the ministry via a formal statement.

“There is a need to block [unmonitored] food imports into the country as these may harm public health, [thus MFDS] has found it necessary to prepare objective standards [to prohibit] products containing raw materials and ingredients found to contain irregularities or potentially cause harm when these are identified via domestic and foreign risk assessments.”

MFDS planned procedure will to be to collect risk data on the foreign ingredients for review, whereupon a committee will create specific profiles for these ingredients and designate these as prohibited or not, which will determine permission for entry into South Korea.

As of November 2021, the initial banned ingredients as determined by MFDS include items that have already been banned according to the current local Food Code or Functional Health Food Code, items from countries known to be associated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) without the necessary documentation, items found to cause severe side effects when consumed, as well as medications and drugs according to the relevant acts governing these.

“MFDS will conduct a periodic re-evaluation every two to three years to review these banned items and determine whether the ban on any can be lifted, based on the latest data,”​ added the ministry.

These new guidelines have very distinct implications for local e-commerce platforms and vendors, as previously food and beverage products sold online were not considered ‘for sale locally’ and governance was less strict under the Food Sanitation Act.

The new rules now mean that the ingredients and raw materials used to make all food and beverage products sold on e-commerce websites will need to be scrutinised and examined by the relevant sellers and platforms in order to ensure that these are not in violation of the new guidelines. Consumers will also no longer be able to purchase any products with ingredients on the banned list in South Korea via the online route.

Children’s food safety

In addition to tightening the food safety of foreign foods and beverages, MFDS also recently completed its 2020 Children’s Dietary Safety Index, which unfortunately revealed that the score for this has dropped compared to the previous survey in 2017, dropping from 73.3 points then to 70.3 points in 2020.

The index measured areas including food safety, nutrition, and dietary practices, and found that whilst safety in terms foodservice catering to children has been improved, the actual food nutrition and dietary practices scores have dipped, which the ministry attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic, there are limits to what can be done in terms of food safety education and guidance work with children, therefore the management of nutrition [as well as education on dietary practices] have been difficult and this has impacted the children’s dietary safety,”​ said MFDS.

“Social distancing in particular caused guidance and education services to drop – dietary counselling rates dropped from 61.2% in 2017 to 45.2% in 2020 so this has been analysed as the main cause for the drop.”

The index was the effort of 228 local governments, and also revealed that the decline was larger in rural cities (a 3.6 point drop from 73.6 to 70.0) compared to large cities (a 2.5 point drop from 73.5 to 71.0) and MFDS vowed to improve the situation across all geographies.

“We will do our best to improve the safety level of diets and nutrition for children across all locations, whether urban or rural,”​ it said.

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