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USMEF Vice Chairman Miller sees room for growth in Korean beef market

Despite significant gains realized by U.S. beef since it returned to the South Korean market in mid-2008, USMEF Vice Chairman Keith Miller, who just returned from a trip to South Korea and Japan with leaders of the Kansas Corn Commission, sees plenty of opportunity in a market that still shows some resistance to U.S. beef.

Korea was the third-largest export market for U.S. beef in January 2009 and the fourth-largest U.S. beef export market for value in 2008, although it was open for only part of the year. Despite that, Miller, a farmer-stockman from Great Bend, Kan., was surprised at the lingering resistance to U.S. products he observed from Korean consumers. This is particularly true for U.S. beef, which was the subject of vocal protests last year when it reentered the Korean market after a prolonged absence.

"Australia is still selling a lot of product there right now," he said. "But if we can get consumer sentiment turned around, I think we can recapture even more of the market. We have the high-quality beef the consumer is looking for. We just need to educate them about the safety of our product."

Miller said concerns about U.S. beef seem to be less of a problem in the foodservice sector than at retail, even though Korea requires country-of-origin labeling in both sectors. U.S. short ribs remain a popular choice for Korean consumers.

"The restaurant owners we spoke to were having major difficulties at first, but lately they have not had many problems," he said. "They've been putting more American beef on their menus, and moving more and more of our product every day."

The group also had the opportunity to visit a Korean cattle operation to learn about local production methods. This experience confirmed the dramatic advantages held by U.S. producers, and the likelihood that export opportunities in this market will continue to grow.

"Korean production is extremely expensive compared to what we have here in the United States," Miller explained.

"They import all the corn that is fed to their livestock, so their cost of gain is extremely high. Their production is on an extremely small scale, with one of the largest operations in the country being 320 head."

Miller said with U.S. beef setting the standard for quality, Korean producers are hard-pressed to compete.

"They're trying to get a really marbled product like we produce in the United States, he said. "But with the quality of the feed they are using, they have to feed their animals a lot longer. I don't see them ever competing effectively with what we can offer in Korea."

Jihae Yang, USMEF-Korea director, said it is important for American producers to see firsthand the growth potential Korea offers.

"Our visitors from the Kansas Corn Commission are tremendous supporters of U.S. beef and pork exports," she said. "I'm pleased that they were able to observe the success of USMEF's marketing efforts and gain perspective on the challenging economic and political environment we face in Korea."

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