Kimchi deceit: South Korea goes digital to prevent origin adulteration amid leap in ingredient imports

Date: 2021.12.01

South Korea is going digital in its efforts to crackdown on imported kimchi and related products masquerading as being locally produced, after identifying a large leap in the imports of ingredients traditionally used to in the sector.

The kimchi market in South Korea is in a unique position where domestically-made products are much more highly-prized than imported ones, largely due to the vast majority of imported kimchi entering the country from China and this product perceived by local consumers to be of low quality​.

Locally manufactured kimchi made with local ingredients is thought of as the most ‘premium’. But in recent months, local authorities identified a large increase in the imports of ingredients used to make kimchi, leading to concerns of deceit with regard to product origins and the decision to conduct a nationwide crackdown.

“The National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service will be enforcing a crackdown on country-of-origin labelling for kimchi and kimchi vegetables [in] November and December, with a focus on items high in demand during kimchi production season such as cabbage, red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, carrots and so on,”​ the agency’s Chairman Lee Ju-myeong said via a formal statement.

“For this crackdown to proceed at maximum efficiency amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be utilising a cyber enforcement team to monitor online malls, delivery apps, inspect mail-order vendors and more.​

“[Our digital management system] history has already revealed that many kimchi firms have increased imports of items used to make kimchi, such as garlic and onion – these firms will be key points of focus for inspection [to ensure] their origin labelling is not deceitful.”​

Between January and September 2021, the agency detected a 38.6% leap in garlic import volumes from 26,700 tons to 37,013 tons as well as an enormous 85.8% leap in onion import volumes from 25,918 tons to 48,149 tons, raising levels of suspicion.

In addition, alarm bells have also been rung as the country is currently undergoing nationwide apprehension over a possible shortage of major ingredients kimchi, which is an important staple food for Korean consumers.

As a result of local ingredient shortage and increased ingredient imports, the ministry has set up a special team of 285 officers to be on crackdown duty to ensure accurate country of origin labelling throughout the duration of the crackdown enforcement, which is currently slated to last until December 10.

Any company that falsely indicates the country of origin of their products is subject to criminal prosecution and a penalty of not more than seven years of jail or not more than KRW100mn (US$84,267), whereas those that completely omit to indicate country of origin will be penalised by not more than KRW10mn (US$8,427).

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