Food producers in the U.S. face new opportunities — and stiffer competition — in South Korea, according to importers from that nation who recently visited the Northwest.
“The Korean appetite is getting more westernized,” said Kristie Park, marketing director for Korea Business Services Inc. of Seoul, South Korea.
Park joined food company representatives during a recent incoming trade mission to Oregon and Hawaii.
Bread, pizza, jelly and other traditionally western food items are becoming regular features of the South Korean diet, she said.
“The consumption of rice goes down every year while the consumption of bread goes up,” Park said.
Last year, U.S. producers shipped $5.2 billion worth of farm goods to South Korea, making it the sixth-largest market for U.S. ag exports in the world.
South Korea has a large population relative to its land base, which means the country imports roughly 70 percent of its food, Park said.
The U.S. already enjoys a leg up in food safety reputation compared to China, she said. “Chinese products, nobody wants to buy.”
Despite the distance between the West Coast and South Korea, the transportation of goods is efficient, which keeps prices reasonable, said Bandi Kim, purchase manager for HF Foods Co. in Seoul, South Korea.
“We know there’s a lot of good quality ag product from Oregon and Washington,” said Kim, whose company imports frozen fruit. “The quality of the North American blueberry is the best.”
While the U.S. and South Korea entered into a free trade agreement in 2012 aimed at easing imports and exports between the two countries, some barriers remain.
Kim, for example, believes there could be strong demand for Northwest blackberries.
“I think blackberries could be the next best seller,” she said. “It tastes and looks good, big size. It could be attractive to Korean consumers.”
However, concerns in South Korea about potential crop pests prevent any shipments of U.S. blackberries or other caneberries to that country, even in frozen form, said Amanda Welker, international trade manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The ODA has been trying to ease the restrictions in negotiations with South Korean food regulators for several years, but the process may take even longer, she said.
“We bring it forward every time we get a chance,” Welker said.
South Korea does accept frozen blueberries and Oregon farmers have also begun shipping fresh blueberries in recent years, though the protocols are strict, she said.
“We’ve asked them to lighten up but they haven’t been able to do it,” Welker said.
South Korean consumers tend to be picky, so importers like HF Foods have strict quality control requirements, Kim said.
The company expects blueberries to be larger and sweeter than fruit that’s commonly considered “Grade A” in the U.S., she said.
“There are a lot of competitors in Korea, so our company wants to differentiate from those competitors,” Kim said.
Regulations over health claims are different between the U.S. and South Korea, which can pose a labeling hurdle, said Michael Lee, president of GoldenBell International, a processed food importer in Seoul, South Korea.
U.S. food manufacturers have an advantage over competitors in Europe, however, as South Koreans are more familiar with the taste of American sauces and dressings, he said.
The long presence of U.S. military personnel in Korea likely accounts for this familiarity, Lee said.
There’s a positive perception in South Korea of Northwest fruit, but that doesn’t stop importers from sourcing from elsewhere, Kim said.
“Chile is your main competitor,” she said.
Other countries in South America, as well as Canada and Mexico, may also give the U.S. a run for its money as South Korea pursues new free trade agreements, she said.
“Korea has been very aggressive with getting FTAs,” Welker said. “As they get more free trade agreements, it’s going to be tougher to compete.”