By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL — Take a cabbage. Pack it in a large clay pot with garlic, ginger, fish sauce and fiery red peppers. Add some other goodies and let it ferment.
What do you get? The pungent Korean dish called kimchi — and a scare about parasite eggs that has ignited a trade dispute between two of Asia’s largest economies.
Kimchi is served at almost every meal and made in most homes. But increasing imports of the spicy cabbage from China have raised a ruckus about a foreign country eating away at the market for a national dish that is at the essence of Korean identity.
Last month, the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) banned the sale of kimchi imported from China because samples contained parasites’ eggs that likely came from the use of human feces as fertilizer in Chinese agricultural production, it said.
The KFDA then added more spice to the trade pickle last week, releasing a report saying parasite eggs had also been found in 3.2 percent of South Korean-made kimchi.
“I’m really worried about the state of kimchi these days,” said Yoon Ji-sun, a graduate student who went on a tour of a kimchi factory in order to get tips on pickling her own at home.
“We cannot trust anyone but ourselves when it comes to kimchi,” she said by telephone.
Some of the South Korean kimchi producers cited as having a tainted product have sent kimchi to markets such as Japan — and even supplied South Korea’s presidential Blue House, the KFDA said.
Typically, the science of kimchi has been less about findings in the lab and more about claims such as warding of the SARS virus and preventing cancer.
One Seoul pharmacist said consumers are worried.
“We have sold five times the amount of anti-parasite medicine in recent days than we normally do, said Yoo Ha-na.
Demand for kimchi had not dropped over fears about Chinese imports, South Korean officials said. But they are not sure what will happen after the revelation the domestic product may also be tainted.
According to the Korean Food Research Institute, the average South Korean each year consumes about 75 pounds of kimchi, which is mostly made with cabbage, though a variety of vegetables can also be used.
The kimchi worries started in September with a report that Chinese-made kimchi had a higher lead content than South Korean-made kimchi. Scientists later said the content did not present a significant health hazard.
China complained about the lead-content report and when South Korea banned the import of Chinese-made kimchi last month, Beijing slapped import bans on several South Korean food products.
In 2004, China became South Korea’s leading trading partner, with two-way trade totaling $79.35 billion, up 39.2 percent from the year before, South Korea’s trade ministry said.
This year’s imports of kimchi from China to October 20 reached 94,128 tons, up by about 30 percent from the same period last year. The 2005 imports had a value of about $40 million, South Korea’s food administration said.
Although the dispute will not be on the menu of official talks at an Asia-Pacific summit in Pusan, South Korea, later this month, kimchi could make its way into informal chats among the leaders, foreign ministers and business leaders — and is almost certain to be served during official functions.
The foreign ministers of China and South Korea have said they want to avoid a trade war over the kimchi spat.
Five years ago, South Korea imposed a 10-fold increase in tariffs on Chinese garlic partly over health concerns, partly to protect its farmers. China retaliated with restrictions on Korean mobile phone imports.
Over the years, kimchi has been billed as a miracle food with an amazing, and perhaps exaggerated, array of health benefits.
Kimchi cuts cholesterol, prevents obesity, diabetes and stomach cancer, constipation and colon cancer, and to top it off, keeps a person young and their skin healthy, according to the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp.
Most of these claims, however, have not been supported through extensive scientific testing.
Kang Sa-ouk, a professor at South Korea’s prestigious Seoul National University, is testing to see if an extract from kimchi can be used as an additive for chicken feed to prevent bird flu.
“The feed has been shown to help improve the fight against bird flu or other types of flu viruses,” said Kang.
Another scientist, who specializes in kimchi, said that even though claims such as cancer prevention have not been proven through substantial study, the food staple does help health.
“There are a lot of ingredients in kimchi, as well as microbes produced during the fermentation process that help a person’s immune systems and circulation,” said Lee Myung-ki, a senior researcher at the Korea Food Research Institute who leads its kimchi task force.
(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo and Frances Yoon)