Expediting imports: South Korea introduces year-round express customs clearance for food firms
South Korea has been launching a slew of initiatives to upgrade its food imports system, from making it mandatory since 2020 for all foreign food and beverage companies exporting into the country to have HACCP certification, to expanding its food safety and monitoring guidelines earlier this year to cover direct purchases made by consumers overseas, implicating e-commerce items as well.
Amidst all of this, one piece of good news has emerged for importing firms whereby the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) has now removed the time restrictions for foreign firms to apply for its express customs clearance, which significantly reduces time wasted at the South Korean border for products.
“MFDS has decided to expand the application period for South Korea’s Planned Import Expedited Customs Clearance System, which will allow for fast customs clearance immediately after import declaration,” MFDS Minister Kim Kang-lip said via a formal statement.
“Previously, the applications to be part of the expedited system were limited to being submitted only in the month of December of the previous year, but from this year onwards it will be available for application all year round.
“This expedited system is only applicable for food companies that have been successfully registered as ‘excellent importers’ by MFDS, and these must also have no record of nonconformity or violation within the last three years as well as have shown a record of importing products into South Korea at least five times a year on average.”
Kim also highlighted that the application procedure for expedited customs clearance has now been computerized, and that firms will still be able to apply for express clearance for the following year in December of the previous year.
“MFDS believes that expanding the opportunities for excellent importers to utilise this expedited customs clearance system will strengthen the benefits for all of these food companies and the overall industry, as well as to improve the efficiency of imported food safety management,” he said.
Excellent importers will also need to ensure that all hygiene requirements are met at the relevant overseas manufacturing facility they are importing from. Documentary evidence will need to be submitted to MFDS as proof of this.
In a separate briefing to South Korean F&B importers, MFDS also announced that 2022 would see the return of both on-site inspections and remote inspections via video audit for foreign food facilities, as opposed to purely remote inspections via video and document review in 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
‘Use By’ date labelling
What may be less welcome by the food and beverage industry though is the ministry’s introduction of a new ‘Use By’ date labelling policy via its Food Policy of Labelling and Advertising Division.
Previously, South Korea used the ‘Sell by’ and the ‘Best Before’ dates on food and beverage labels. The former represented the date of manufacture to the date before which products were allowed to go on sale and most applied to processed and imported products; whereas the latter was the date before which the quality of the food product can be maintained if stored correctly.
In the briefing to South Korean food and beverage importers in March 2022, the ministry highlighted that the policy to replace the ‘Sell By’ date with the ‘Use By’ date would be going ahead despite unwillingness from the local food sector.
“As progress on the bill for ‘Use By’ labelling stands, this has been promulgated and the new date labelling will apply to products shipped for manufacturing, processing and importing after January 1 2023,” it said.
“For imported foods, importers must note that when the products are subject to the ‘Use By’ date label requirements based on Korean standards, the date on the product label must be a ‘Use By’ date even if previously labelled as ‘Best Before’ in the exporting country.
“Various food sector stakeholders have weighed in on this, such as the Korea Food Industry Association which was concerned about the burden on consumers if new facilities are required to make this change as extra costs are estimated at about KRW7.92bn (US$6.5mn); as well as other government representatives from the US and EU worrying about trade frictions or unfair trade barriers as international standards do not yet all reflect this.
“[That said] the decision has been made in accordance with global trends, so as to reduce consumer confusion and improve food distribution and manufacturing.”
The dairy industry in South Korea also highlighted concerns of implementing this due to cold chain and refrigeration systems being as yet unprepared to make this change.
“There will be a grace period of eight years for products which standards for refrigerated storage require further improvements to be made,” added MFDS.
MFDS will be conducting a policy research project between 2022 to 2025 to set recommended ‘Use By’ dates for 200 food types.