Food for Thought: A Cultural Analysis in Korean Distrust in Chinese Products

Made in China
Written by Lindsey Huster

Here's another insightful column by our own Lindsey Huster. This column discusses how even the youth of Korea have a distrust of Chinese food products.  Thank you Lindsey for your contribution and I think its definitely something we should keep in mind when we shop and eat.

Made in China: a three-word phrase that doubles as a quip in some Korean classrooms.

When something breaks in my classroom- be it a pencil, pen, or book bag- a common reply from my students is that it's, "Made in China." Usually, an eruption of laughter follows as the flawed quality of the product is readily displayed by the hapless student/consumer.

Even at a young age, some Korean students have developed a keen awareness regarding a familiar controversy surrounding Chinese exports. Although it remains laughable for some, for many Koreans, it leaves uncertainty and suspicion about many products.

Currently, less than 40 percent of Koreans feel confident in the safety of  Korean food. However, the quality of Chinese exports remains even more dubious.

From a cultural perspective, is this distrust in Chinese exports justified, or a mere Asian rivalry? With the prospect of free-trade talks beginning as early as next year between South Korea and China, this question seems especially more relevant.

South Korea has been known for a few cases of hysteria over food (think: mad cow disease).After a five-year ban on American beef, the president of South Korea opted to begin beef trade with the United States. As a result,  thousands of Koreans reacted with angry protests against the free trade agreement. Some signs even said, "I want to go to heaven, and I don't want to die of mad cow disease."

It seems though that Chinese exports have had an extensive history of irregularity with a number of countries. In particular, melamine incident of 2008 stands out as a memorable moment that continues to fuel present uncertainty.

During that time, Chinese-made powdered milk products were found to contain dangerous doses of melamine - a banned substance in food. The cheap, harmful substance killed four infants and made over 53,000 sick in China.

The contamination also affected consumers globally. In Korea, the KFDA analyzed 400 products containing Chinese-made ingredients and discovered that almost half contained melamine.

With the rapid growth of China‘s economy thanks to  Deng Xiaoping's open market reforms, the growth of new businesses has outpaced the government's ability to regulate them. Unfortunately, many Chinese businesses have been faced with stiff competition and poor supervision, and are willing to take drastic measures to increase profit margins. In 2007, the Chinese government recognized that that nearly 20 percent of the country's products were substandard or tainted.

A number of Chinese exports, like kimchi, chili powder and beef broth, have also been found to be contaminated with unhealthy levels of bacteria and inedible chemicals. Even with such issues, however, South Korea and China remain strong traders. According to a recent article in the New York Times, two-way trade between China and South Korea amounted to $141 billion last year. Additionally, South Korea sends approximately a quarter of its exports to China.

Although Korea has strict import safety regulations, the omnipresence of Chinese-made goods and products imported makes it difficult to spot all illegalities. Still, many companies manage to sidestep these exams and include harmful ingredients to try to beat competitors.

Once Chinese products are imported, some are even added to other Korean products. In many cases, processed and packaged foods contain a number of global ingredients that together make one product.

I don't want to endorse discrimination against Chinese products. However, it seems in some ways that my Korean students may be on to something. It does not seem like a good time for Korea and China to begin free trade talks if there is still a strong distrust in Chinese products. Korean confidence is minimal towards Chinese products, especially food.  Before any talk of fair trade agreements, South Korea needs confident consumers, and needs to maintain stricter safety guidelines on Chinese exports to create space for that growth.

Lindsey Huster a writer who usually hails from Chicago. She enjoys listening to music,wearing cardigans and generally anything vegetarian. 

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