Over the past month, people from different walks of life have told me that much of the kimchi served in restaurants is imported from China. A chef friend at a local restaurant told me that most of the ingredients in bibimbap come from China. The same holds true for vegetable side dishes. Imported food from China costs less than growing it and preparing it in Korea because of the cost of labor. This is particularly true of vegetables that require time-consuming preparation.
Much imported food contains GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The DNA of plants and animals is modified to change characteristics such as resistance to insects. To producers, GMOs allow for greater and faster production. Supporters argue that this makes food more affordable and reduces food shortages. Critics, however, claim that altering the natural characteristics creates toxins that are harmful to people and the GMO affects the ecosystem negatively.
GMOs make up more than 90 percent of the corn, soybean and sugar beet grown in the U.S., and they are found in about 80 percent of packaged foods in the U.S. In recent years, China has jumped on the GMO bandwagon to increase food production. Most governments have determined that GMOs are safe, but 64, including Korea, require that GMO foods be labeled. The U.S. does not require GMO labeling because of strong opposition from the farm lobby. Benin, Zambia and Serbia are the only nations that ban GMOs.
Finally, there is the problem of additives. The popular mass-produced rice wine makgeolli, for example, uses additives in the fermentation process and preservatives to extend the shelf life. Restaurants in Korea have long added MSG to food, and many foods are bleached during the cleaning process to make the color look more appealing on the table.
Together these trends suggest that Korea has lost control of its food supply and is dependent on imports. This is not new and food imports have at times become big political issues. The most recent controversy was the massive demonstrations in 2008 against the resumption of beef imports from the U.S. that had been banned since 2003.
The 2008 demonstrations were politically charged, but it did produce an important and often overlooked precedent: origin labeling in restaurants. In response to the demonstrations, restaurants around the country began labeling the origin of the beef served. This prompted some restaurants to extend labeling to other ingredients. Once the demonstrations died down, the interest in origin labeling in restaurants subsided.
Origin and content labeling in restaurants is important because it gives consumers information about what they are eating. Consumers who are concerned about cost may not mind eating bibimbap that is made of mostly imported products, many of which contain GMOs. Some, on the other hand, may want to pay more to get bibimbap made local, or at least with Korean, non-GMO sources. The same holds true for MSG and other additives. People have a right to know.
The easiest way to deal with this type of issue is to pass a law requiring restaurants to label the origin and content of the food they serve. That approach is similar to the 1990s regulation that banned shampoo and conditioner in public baths and hotels in response to fears of too many chemicals flowing into the sewer. The result made little impact on the reduction of chemicals flowing in the sewer because people brought their own shampoo and conditioner. Forcing restaurants to label food would hurt small independent restaurants that are fighting to pay increasingly high rents. Corporate chains, on the other hand, would most likely absorb the costs by cutting them elsewhere.
A better approach is to draw on the beef-labeling precedent and encourage restaurants to label what they can so that customers have at least a rough idea of where their food is coming from in origin and process. Origin includes not just the country, but also the issue of GMOs. Process refers to the chemical additives, such as MSG.
Korea has an interesting history of campaigns to change restaurant practices. In the 1980s, restaurants began adopting throw-away wooden chopsticks, but concerns over the amount of garbage in the 1990s created the successful campaign to bring back reusable metal chopsticks.
So next time you visit a restaurant, ask where the kimchi comes from and ask whether the side dishes have MSG in them or not. If enough customers ask these types of questions, restaurant owners will find it easier to post the information, just as they did about beef in 2008.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.