[FORUM]Is Korean produce really safer?

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[FORUM]Is Korean produce really safer?

Why can’t we feed our children at least one safe meal a day of Korean agricultural products for lunch? The Supreme Court ruling on the illegality of local government regulations requiring only Korean agricultural products in school lunches is unexpectedly stirring up some discontentment from a lot of people. Some civic organizations are reacting strongly against the verdict.
The main point of the protest is that harmful imported agricultural products should not be allowed in school lunches for the sake of children’s health. At first glance this seems like a rational point. Why would anyone be against feeding children good food?
However, a closer look shows that there are incorrect premises and loose logic behind that statement. Firstly, the regulations start with the black and white logic that “Korean products are safe, and imported products are harmful.” It totally excludes the idea that we should use what is safe wherever it may come from, since there are also harmful Korean products and safe imported products.
Are Korean agricultural products 100 percent safe? Can we feed them to our children with complete assurance?
Unfortunately, the reality is that it is hard to say “yes” to these questions confidently. Farmhouses certified as producing environmentally friendly agricultural products have used agricultural chemicals, spinach found to contain chemical residue well over the legal standards has been distributed and pigs fed with antibiotics have been sold on the market. These are all recently exposed cases of harmful Korean agricultural products.
Of course these could be minor exceptions that were blown out of proportion by the media. Nevertheless, as such cases continue, the level of trust in Korean agricultural products can only decrease. In addition, the concerns of environment specialists, that fertilizers and agricultural chemicals aggravate water and land pollution, make us even more worried about the safety of domestic agricultural goods.
In reality, consumers do not buy and eat Korean agricultural products believing that they are completely safe. Many feel uneasy about imported agricultural products, so choose to buy Korean products, even if they are a little more expensive. Consumers compare imported goods, that are suspected of being harmful, to Korean goods, that are supposed to be safe, but nobody is sure. In other words, subjective probability is the standard for choice, not positive safety.
It is ironic, therefore, that the mass of imported agricultural products in the market that are “positively” harmful maintains the demand for Korean agricultural products. Paradoxically speaking, if “positively” safe agricultural goods were imported, the position of Korean agricultural products in the market would be endangered.
One could retort at this point, “How can imported agricultural products be safe?” Our perception of imported agricultural products is negative because of our experience of Chinese products contaminated with agricultural chemicals and heavy metals. However, it does not mean all agricultural products produced in China are bad, simply because there are a lot of harmful products among those imported from China. If Chinese agricultural products were all harmful, China would be full of cancer patients. I took pains to get Chinese statistics, and found there were 4,770 patients with food poisoning in the second quarter of last year. The number of food poisoning sufferers in Korea during the same period was 6,046. It is arguable whether the Chinese statistics can be trusted, but still, considering the huge population of the country, we can, by no means, say that we are better.
If people actually visited China, they would be surprised to find so much safe organic rice and vegetable products there. These are mostly consumed in China or exported to Japan. China exports its safest and highest quality products to Japan because Japanese consumers are very particular about their food and the country has a strict quarantine system.
Korean importers should take a large part of the blame for those harmful products that are imported in vast quantities to Korea, because they import cheap low quality goods so as to earn more money. According to an investigation by the Korea Food & Drug Administration, Korean companies in China that manufacture food products to import back home have very low hygiene standards. On top of that, the quarantine system of Korea that merely gives a cursory examination of agricultural products by sight or a quick touch plays its part in allowing low quality imports to enter the country unchecked.
Excluding imported agricultural products from school lunches under such circumstances is the same as blaming our problem on someone else. It is contradictory to be hostile to imported agricultural products in general. After all, we export $2 billion worth of agricultural products each year. What would happen if our major export market, Japan, suddenly decided not to use imported agricultural products for school lunches? Korean civic groups and farmers’ organizations would strongly censure Japan’s poor protectionist policy. This logic applies to us in the same way. A one-sided declaration does not work in this open age.

* The writer is the leader of the family news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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