[Viewpoint]U.S. beef to give consumers choiceAbout four years ago, I had an opportunity to live in Japan for around a year. Because I like to eat well while living alone, I often shopped carefully for food.
On days when I had no dinner date, I would begin food shopping around 4 p.m, buying 150 grams of wagyu beef at a 30 percent discount because its expiration date was approaching. I would add a bottle of wine from Chile or Greece for less than 20,000 won ($20), a Korean pepper and Japanese lettuce for a salad and garlic from Aomori for a sauce.
Several weeks ago, an advertisement for Australian beef hung at Samseong subway station caught my eye. What made an impression was the number on the banner. In 2006, Korea imported 160,000 tons of Australian beef. If each portion was 200 grams, the total amount would be enough for 800 million meals. If only 40 million South Koreans eat beef, that would mean average beef-eater consumes 20 portions of Australian beef a year. With a figure that high, Australian beef is no longer an imported product. It’s a staple.
Last weekend, I traveled to Jucheon Village of Yeongwol, Gangwon Province, to visit the hanwoo, or the Korean beef producing village, which has been featured in news lately.
The village was more than what I had expected. On the main street, restaurants where you can eat grilled beef that you purchase from stores are booming. The street was flooded with visitors.
After some window shopping, I bought some hanwoo stakes, which were on sale for 1,900 won per 100 grams At restaurants, an assorted plate of high-quality beef was a reasonable 28,000 won. Unfortunately, I had no time to dine.
The resumption of U.S. beef imports has become a political issue. Debates always happen when markets open, but it’s deplorable that consumers’ viewpoints are neglected. I don’t want consumers to be treated like kings, but at least we should be guaranteed a variety of choices. That’s the only way consumer can use money, experience, knowledge and instinct to make good choices.
Hanwoo is an example. Everyone probably knows that high-grade hanwoo purchased in Seoul is delicious, but extremely expensive. I’m in the top 10 percent income bracket and own a house expensive enough to pay the additional inclusive real estate tax. But even I cannot typically dine on hanwoo beef. We should have alternatives.
One such alternative used to be beef from Australia and New Zealand. Now a new alternative from the United States is available. The resumption of the U.S. beef imports gives us more choices.
It is not only a matter of beef. The principle is the same for all products. While some buy high-quality, organic, environmentally friendly rice, others make rice rolls with Chinese rice.
There are concerns that the demand for hanwoo beef will drastically drop when U.S. beef imports resume. However, there is already enough imported beef in our market. Will the total demand actually rise when the U.S. beef arrives? Probably not.
I wonder why we worry about the decrease in demand and price for hanwoo with the resumption of U.S. beef imports, when the same concerns were not seen when we began importing Australian beef.
Just because the price of frozen beef from the United States and the price of Korean-grown pork rib will be about the same, how many consumers will want to select frozen meet for their dining tables? Some will, but it is unlikely that the demand for the pork will be easily changed.
Some say the government has given up protecting the people’s health. But the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, has ruled that U.S. beef is safe.
European countries, which have high per capita incomes and higher awareness of food safety, have already opened their market to U.S. beef. It is difficult to debate the safety of U.S. beef.
There is some concern that should a new case of U.S. mad cow disease be reported, Korea would have to wait for the OIE ruling before banning U.S. imports.
Let’s say there’s an outbreak in the U.S. News would spread in real time on the Internet. Who would then import U.S. beef into Korea? After all, this is a country where the consumption of poultry suddenly dropped in the aftermath of bird flu, although the government strongly said that fully cooked chickens and ducks are safe to eat.
Producers are important, but consumers are more important. What the producers need is not compensation for their losses, but investment and support to improve the sales and to upgrade the quality of their product.
Pricing appropriately and having faith in consumers are the best ways to increase sales of hanwoo.
After such improvements, the consumers will have the final say. Consumers are not foolish enough to ignore such efforts and improvements.
*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Tae-wook