‘Food guru’ sees K-food as the country’s next big export

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‘Food guru’ sees K-food as the country’s next big export

Over the past few years, K-pop and Korean dramas have taken China by storm.

“My Love From the Star” received 12.5 billion views on Chinese video platforms like Iqiyi.com and LeTV.com since its December debut.

And several Chinese imitations of Korean products and soap operas have saturated the mainland, expanding Korea’s image abroad and leading to an increase in tourism.

But now another trend is following the heels of that success: K-food.

Kim Jae-soo, CEO of the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation, a public enterprise established to improve farmers’ profitability and develop the national economy, has been somewhat of a pioneer in that field.

Kim, who is perhaps best known as a sort of Korean “food guru,” has published seven books about Korean food, and for the Incheon Asian Games, he even suggested the promotion of culinary tourism to draw more overseas visitors.

But he has recently turned his eyes to China, where the annual food industry is worth about $750 trillion. But even though the Chinese food market is enormous, Korean food exports only reach about $14 trillion despite the two counties’ proximity, Kim said.

“It’s pretty well known that Chinese people relish food,” he said. “I initiated a plan to target the Chinese with income levels in the top 5 percent.”

By K-food, Kim doesn’t simply mean traditional Korean foods like bibimbap or bulgogi - staples here that have already been introduced to the world. Instead, K-food includes food ingredients and as well as processed food.

Following the popularity of K-pop and Korean dramas, Kim said he plans to make K-food the third most popular Korean product in China.

Safety is the selling point of Korean food, Kim said, using milk as an example.

“The high-income Chinese population started to consume dairy products as their eating habits changed,” he said. “Because they don’t trust domestic products in terms of hygiene and quality, they look for imported goods.

“What other countries could provide fresh milk with such a short expiration date?” he added. “South Korea has the best conditions, geographically.”

China-South Korea FTA negotiations began on May 2, 2012, and the latest round of talks was from Monday to Sept. 26.

However, there are some obstacles that hinder his plan. China has strict regulations on pickled food, for instance, and despite kimchi’s excellence being known worldwide, those rules make kimchi virtually impossible to export, he said.

“Kimchi is a great fermented food, with two million lactic acid bacterium per 100 to 200 grams,” Kim said. “But the Chinese government categorized it as unhygienic and restricted the number to fewer than 30 [colon bacillus per 100 grams].”

“It’s like, we have to boil kimchi [to kill the germs] to export it to China,” he said.

Though the two nations agreed to fix this problem in their latest meeting, it is projected to take some time, Kim said.

That’s why he focuses on inland areas to promote K-food, where market entry is slow.

“What we need to do is to catch inefficient regulations and persuade China to fix them,” Kim said.

“Then the market will be open for K-food.”

BY YEH YOUNG-JUNE [ypc3c@joongang.co.kr]

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