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Imported Food Posing as Domestic

Posted December. 18, 2006 07:04,   


In a refrigerated warehouse, hundreds of boxes containing frozen garlic and peppers from China sit in 10-meter-high stacks.

The garlic inside the boxes is frozen as hard as a stone and frosty. Frozen garlic turns red when thawed. This is why they are not sold in their normal state, but ground into tiny bits to be used in sauces.

The normal temperature warehouse nearby held onions and grains from China. The big letters on the sacks in the warehouse read “Made in China.”

Domestic onion yield this year was on the wane – it rained too much this summer. This is why Korea is abounding with onions imported from China these days.

A worker at the warehouse housing the Chinese farm products says, “The crops are cheap, but they are not inedible. We went through all the necessary procedures to import them.”

However, other sources from the same industry all agree that legal import procedure does not guarantee healthiness of the production process.

According to the Customs Service, $13 billion (approximately 12.4 trillion won) worth of produces were imported last year. Among them, 30 percent came via the Pyeongtaek Harbor. They are mostly from China.

Korean dried yellow corvina “produced in China”-

A National Intelligence Service report revealed that imported agricultural and marine products often turn into domestic produce.

According to the report, ever since the retail sale of imported rice was allowed this April, many sellers are mixing imported rice with domestic rice, and sometimes sell imported rice in sacks for domestic rice. In the past two months, 13 cases of selling imported rice as domestic rice were detected. The amount of rice involved in the cases adds up to 82 tons.

Imported rice is branded with convincing phrases like, “Straight from the toiling farmers” or “freshly polished” to mislead people into thinking it is domestic.

Sometimes, imported sesame and red pepper are scattered in fields near regions famous for farm produce in Korea as if they were laid out in the sun to dry. Another person comes by to gather the crops and to identify them as domestic crops.

Yellow corvina imported from China turns into “Yeonggwang Dried Yellow Corvina” (a famous Korean fish brand) after dried in Yeonggwang of Jeonnam province. Kimchi made with sauce imported from China and Korean cabbage is marketed as “domestic kimchi.”

School cafeterias use imported crops-

National Intelligence Service believes that the imported produces are sold to consumers through temporary markets held in apartment complexes and markets in the countryside. Most consumers think that they are buying domestic farm produce when shopping in the countryside, but the produce may well be imported from China as the origin requirements are loose there.

Some importers hire old women to sell the produce, sprawled in public areas like the subway station. In the countryside, some brokers hired the elderly to sell sesame imported from China to tourists nearby domestic sesame fields, as if they just harvested the produce.

School cafeterias even use imported agricultural and marine produce to lower costs.

According to the National Intelligence Service, a company in Incheon maintains that they use domestic wheat, but it actually imports wheat flour from the U.S. and distributes their product at twice the price of goods sold by other companies.

Another company in Chungbuk Province, which prepares food for school cafeterias, uses pepper powder imported from China. The company lobbies the nutritionists to use its pepper powder.

Regulating imports harshly will lead to a drop in exports-

Merchants flood the terminal at the Pyeongtaek Harbor in the afternoons.

They are all headed to China. They take with them electronic goods to sell in China, and bring with them back agricultural goods like pepper, sesame, beans and sesame oil.

According to the National Intelligence Service, there are some 4,000 of these merchants countrywide. Last year they brought in 17.8 thousand tons of agricultural produce. In the first half of this year alone (January to June), they brought in 12.1 thousand tons.

Each merchant is allowed to bring in a maximum of 50 kg of crops each time. The luggage cannot exceed five kg per type of crop. Korean customs, however, allow the merchants to bring in up to five packages of pepper powder, that weight five kg each.

A custom worker says, “If we impose rules harshly when the merchants bring in Chinese agricultural produce, Chinese customs will also do the same and they will make it hard for merchants to bring Korean electronic goods into China.” In other words, if we make it hard to import, they will also make it hard for us to export.

sublime@donga.com smhong@donga.com