[Letters] Made in the the USA versus raised in the USATwo years ago, the Korea JoongAng Daily ran a photo of at least 100,000 South Korean citizens protesting on the streets over the opening of U.S. beef imports. International commentary ranged from confusion to derision over how Koreans’ mistrust of American beef could be so intense as to merit nearly toppling their own government.
The perception of American products was not always like this. One of my earliest purchases as a child was a stapler made in the USA. I used it for about 20 years. Since then, having bought a range of other American products, the label “Made in the USA” has remained the symbol of quality for me and many other Koreans, ranging from Hollywood movies to autos and computers.
But what about “Raised in the USA?” The South Korean beef market was closed to U.S. imports for several years after U.S. beef tested positive for mad cow disease. In 2008, the Korean government suddenly agreed to reopen the beef market to U.S. imports without age restrictions that would minimize mad cow risk, catching Korean citizens off guard and leading to a hundred days of protests. South Korea then re-negotiated and reached an agreement to import only American beef younger than 30 months. This dissipated much of the political fervor without alleviating the mistrust that extended well beyond those who took to the streets.
Recently, top U.S. and Korean officials met in Seoul to open the South Korean beef market once again to American beef older than 30 months. From my perspective, I’d recommend against this. If American beef older than 30 months is imported, Koreans will conclude once again, rightly or wrongly, that all American beef is unsafe.
Since the 2008 protests, “Raised in the USA” has not yet recovered trust in South Korea. Because of the uproar over U.S. beef imports, the Korean government now requires all restaurants in South Korea to indicate the source of beef used in any recipe (even soup or spaghetti) to relieve Koreans’ anxiety. In fact, although it is less expensive for a similar quality cut than local beef or other imports, I have seen very few Korean restaurants indicate they use American beef. While Korean newspapers state that imports of American beef to Korea has increased recently, it is likely being used in contexts where labeling standards are lax and in only the cheapest food products.
Even McDonald’s, an international business symbolic of American culture, advertises that it uses only “pure Australian beef” in South Korea. Burger King announced that it only uses beef from Australia and New Zealand. Why? Even famous brands like McDonald’s cannot survive if they are perceived as using unsafe ingredients. They know that Koreans still do not trust the safety of American beef and must distance their brands from American beef.
Therefore the U.S. should aim to export only the best quality beef to Korea and regain the Korean people’s trust. Regaining Koreans’ confidence in U.S. beef will be a long-term gain for many American industries seeking to access the 12th largest economy in the world.
How will we know that U.S. beef has regained trust in South Korea? When McDonald’s in South Korea announces it uses “pure American beef.”
Kwon Seung-woo, a professor at Korea University Business School