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Korean Market A Long Ways From Back To Normal

Recent industry articles have focused on the fact that Koreans are still buying U.S. beef despite months of avid protests against our product. Admittedly, it is positive that Koreans are purchasing our product despite all the bad press, but that increasing volume doesn’t tell the whole story.

Thus far in August, the U.S. has seen sales increase to the point they roughly constitute about 20% of the total imported product by the big-three exporters to Korea (Australia, the U.S and New Zealand). For perspective, though, the U.S. formerly had 60% of the Korean market, and our product was considered to be a premium product when compared to New Zealand and Australia.

In order to achieve these improving market shares, we’ve had to literally buy market share away from other countries. Korean domestic beef sells for 6-7 times the price of U.S. beef. Even Australian product is 3-4 times higher than ours, and they sell more than three times the U.S. volume.

Just last week, the Korean government had to forcibly break up anti-U.S. demonstrations. They arrested 157 demonstrators and used water cannons on the protesters (the water contained blue dye to help the police identify participants for arrest).

The challenge for the U.S. isn’t only getting the larger retail outlets in South Korea to carry U.S. product, which they have been hesitant to do, but to reposition our product in Korean consumers’ minds as a premium product once again.

On a related note, Seoul-based Munhwa Broadcasting Company (MBC), which was responsible for the erroneous reports on the dangers of BSE in U.S. beef that triggered the widespread protests, was ordered by Seoul Southern District Court to air a correction. The Korea Communications Commission also ordered the company to issue an apology.

MBC admitted to six translation errors, and to having mistakenly identified images of non-ambulatory cattle as animals infected with BSE. The MBC stories were terribly damaging and misleading, going as far as interviewing an American mother, who suspected that her daughter had died of variant Creutzfeldt Jakobs Disease (vCJD).

It’s interesting that MBC didn’t issue a correction or an apology until being forced by the courts. And, as is usually the case, the correction and apology were delivered with far less impact than the original reports.

Of course, sensationalism and "yellow journalism" aren’t unique to Korea. But one has to be impressed that there are mechanisms in place in South Korea to hold their media organizations accountable. That’s certainly not the case in the U.S.