September 28, 2005

S.Korea questions safety of national dish kimchi

By Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans are wondering if they
should stop eating kimchi, a staple on almost every dinner
table, after a report that imports of the spicy pickled dish
from China may contain high lead concentrations.

The scare has brought a boom for domestic makers, with
parents calling up schools to make sure their children eat
Korean kimchi in the cafeteria.

The kimchi fuss comes after Seoul questioned the safety of
other food exports from China including eel, carp and beer.

Typically radish or cabbage packed with garlic, ginger and
hot peppers and then pickled, kimchi is eaten with most meals
in South Korea. Many have kimchi pots for home pickling and
even a special refrigerator to keep the pungent stuff at the
right temperature and to prevent it tainting other foodstuffs.

In the past three years, imports have soared as many
restaurants, which must supply unlimited kimchi with each meal
and typically operate on razor-thin profit margins, opted for
the Chinese variety at about a quarter of the home-grown price.

A recent survey found that about half of Seoul's
restaurants served Chinese kimchi.

"I've quit eating kimchi at restaurants," said a Seoul
resident who identified himself only by his family name, Yang.

But in a sign of the times, establishments have quickly set
up placards telling patrons they only serve domestic kimchi.

"I put up a sign saying that we make the kimchi we serve
after seeing reports on the news that people were afraid of
being served Chinese-made kimchi," said Lee Myoung-hee, manager
of the Chungjungbok restaurant in Seoul.

Many younger Koreans say they cannot tell the difference
between domestic and imported kimchi. Most of the kimchi that
is imported from China is made by South Koreans who have set up
shop there to take advantage of low wages and low commodity


The kimchi scare has spread quickly, given the importance
of the dish in the local diet, according to local media

On Sunday, an opposition lawmaker set the ball rolling,
saying that a study by the Seoul Research Institute of Public
Health and Environment had indicated that Chinese imports
contained three to five times more lead than domestic kimchi.

On Monday, the presidential office said it had ordered the
government to re-examine how it checks food imports.

The makers in China have said their products are safe and
have questioned the science behind the report, local media

Experts say there is no safe level for lead ingestion
because the element can remain in the body in bones and teeth,
making exposure particularly dangerous for children and
pregnant woman.

Professor Lee Byung-young of Korea National Agricultural
College said lead might have entered Chinese-made kimchi
through food colouring or pesticides.

"Whether contaminated ingredients are used is important.
Kimchi is not like an apple where you can simply peel the skin
away before you eat it," Lee said.

New orders for domestic kimchi and calls for information
have risen sharply since the report on the imports, said Nam
In-sook, who manages the Pungmi kimchi plant south of Seoul.

An official at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs
and Trade said it did not want the kimchi scare to upset
relations with China, one of Seoul's biggest trading partners.

"It could touch on the sensitive issue of trade conflict,
and it's our role to try to resolve the issue without letting
it develop into trade friction," an official said by telephone.

"But there are some issues where there can't be compromise,
and that is when it comes to the health and welfare of the
people," the official added.

According to the state-run Korea Agro-Trade Corporation,
the amount of kimchi imported from China between January and
the end of August this year was 70,851 tonnes. In all of 2002,
Chinese kimchi imports totaled just 1,041 tonnes.

(With additional reporting by Cho Mee-young)