Only four years ago, 100,000 South Koreans lined the streets of Seoul to protest the return of U.S. beef to Korea. Consumer confidence in American beef was at an all-time low. Media outlets would not even accept paid ads promoting the products for fear of getting pulled into the protest backlash – instead joining the outrage by declaring U.S. beef to be unsafe from BSE.
Flash forward four years and we find the editors of three influential Korean culinary magazines on a detailed tour of the U.S. beef industry, visiting a Wyoming ranch, receiving a scientific briefing at Colorado State University, talking with beef industry distributors and retailers in New York City and enjoying the world's finest grain-fed beef.
The evolution of Korea, from No. 3 destination for U.S. beef exports in 2003 to a tumultuous scene of angry protests and back to a growing and vibrant market, has been a rollercoaster ride. However, for the American beef industry, the time and energy spent wooing Korean importers, retailers, food service operators, media and consumers has been a worthwhile investment.
"Korean consumers have a very high standard for quality," said Jihae Yang, U.S. Meat Export Federation director in South Korea, whose team organized the media visit. "We have remained confident that when we can tell the real story behind U.S. beef – and the industry's commitment to quality and safety – that we would find a receptive audience for that message."
The story told by three Korean culinary magazines is evidence that the positive message of U.S. beef is getting through. Following the editors' visit in late August and early September, each of the magazines has produced multi-page articles with full-color photos documenting their trip, with extensive focus on the Wyoming ranching operations and the quality of USDA prime steaks the editors enjoyed at several of New York's finest restaurants.
"This was an extremely positive experience for those editors," said Suzanne Strassburger, president of Strassburger Meats and creator of the Suzy Sirloin line of meat products. Strassburger, a USMEF member, served as guide for the team for a behind-the-scenes tour of famed New York steakhouses Smith & Wollensky and Peter Luger. "Whether they're meeting with chefs, suppliers, butcher shop owners or ranchers, this tour allowed them to see the faces behind our industry and get to know them personally."
The editors of Lemon Tree, Essen, and Cookand brought home messages that told a story of the quality production practices that go a long way to building consumer confidence in American beef.
"The quality of U.S. beef is world-class," reported Essen. "U.S. producers care about animal welfare," adding that many American livestock operations have adopted systems designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, "one of the top scientists in humane livestock handling," to reduce stress in animals.
The messages of corn-fed quality were echoed in the other magazines, which detailed the journalists' visits to the Agricultural Research Development and Education Center at Colorado State University, briefings by USMEF staff in Denver, the Petsch family's ranching and feeding operation near Meriden, Wyo., and to New York to see the retail and food service side of the industry.
The U.S. beef industry tour, the first by any Korean media team since the first BSE finding in the United States in 2003, was made possible through support from the Beef Checkoff Program and the USDA Market Access Program.
"I was very surprised and impressed by the academic support available to the U.S. beef industry, and by the support producers receive from USMEF and other organizations," said Ho Sun Lee, editor-in-chief of Lemon Tree. "It was good for us to see not only the production practices, but to experience the entire culture that is responsible for producing U.S. beef."
"This type of positive reporting on the U.S. beef industry in a key market like Korea is invaluable for our industry, from producers to processors to exporters," said Philip Seng, USMEF president and CEO. "Many months of education and cultivation have gone on behind the scenes to encourage these independent journalists to embark on this 'farm to fork' experience. The results speak for themselves."
USMEF has been active in the market working to rebuild consumer confidence in U.S. beef. After market access was regained in 2008, USMEF introduced its "Trust" campaign to educate importers, buyers, consumers and key influencers with factual information about U.S. beef. The campaign is now in its third phase, "World Class Beef," which focuses on the quality that makes U.S. beef the most highly prized grain-fed beef in the world.
In 2003, South Korea was the No. 3 market for U.S. beef, buying 246,595 metric tons (543.6 million pounds) valued at $815 million – accounting for 19.4 percent of all U.S. beef exports by volume 21.1 percent by value. Since falling to virtually nothing (233 metric tons valued at $610,000) in 2006, Korea rebounded in 2011 to be the No. 4 market for U.S. beef, purchasing 154,019 metric tons (339.6 million pounds) valued at $686 million.
"We have seen a lot of progress in Korea, but great opportunities remain," said Seng. "During the years we were effectively out of the Korean market, we lost market share to our global competitors, but with the help of initiatives like this media outreach program and our ongoing initiatives at all levels of the meat industry trade, we are confident that Korea will once again be a key customer for U.S. beef in the years ahead."