Animal welfare and sustainability are not yet popular topics of conversation in Asian markets, such as South Korea, but it is only a matter of time before the trends that take root in Europe and the United States will find their way around the globe.
The US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) in Korea recently took a proactive approach to these sensitive subject matters by hosting a workshop for 230 Korean red meat importers, distributors, retail and food service operators to give them insights into the care that the US beef and pork industries take both in raising livestock and in caring for the land that supports the production of American red meat.
The progress that American agriculture has achieved in the areas of efficient resource utilization was highlighted by Travis Arp, USMEF's manager of technical services, who also addressed the industry's ability to produce more high-quality red meat with the same or fewer animals in a humane environment. The educational program was provided with funding support from the USDA Market Access Program (MAP), the Beef Checkoff Program and the Pork Checkoff.
"One of the primary issues in South Korea is tight regulation on the ability of processors to label product as 'natural' or 'organic' or other marketing descriptors that cannot be uniformly defined," said Arp. "Since labels can't be used for this purpose in Korea, our goal is to help the importers and buyers in Korea better understand the care that goes into the production of US pork and beef so they can make their purchasing decisions based on knowledge."
Arp outlined the positive environmental impacts that both the US pork and beef industries have made, resulting in significant reductions in water use, land use, greenhouse emissions and energy consumption.
At the same time, he noted how the overall efficiency of the US pork industry increased dramatically from 1959 through 2009, realizing a 33 percent improvement in feed efficiency and a doubling of carcass weight production despite a 39 percent decline in the breed herd. Similarly, the US beef industry boosted the yield per animal 28 percent between 1977 and 2007, requiring only four animals to produce the same amount of beef as five animals produced 30 years earlier.
While the US livestock industry has improved its efficiency, it also has focused on the welfare of the animals, working to ensure that all animals raised for food or as working animals enjoy the Five Animal Freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.
"The American livestock industries have made concerted efforts to address both product quality and animal welfare, ranging from the pork industry's PQA Plus program to Beef Quality Assurance and the lamb industry's Sheep Safety & Quality Assurance," said Arp. "The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) oversees the process from a regulatory standpoint, enforcing the Humane Slaughter Act and utilizing its own Compliance Guide for a Systematic Approach to the Humane Handling of Livestock."
Unlike in South Korea, some meat producers in the United States utilize third-party humane handling certification – as well as product certifications for organic, natural, grass-fed and free-range – to provide product differentiation and additional information to consumers at the point of sale. Arp noted that these labeling claims must be approved by the FSIS.
"There are many misconceptions regarding product labeling and what it means for product quality," Arp told the Korean audience. "Some consumers believe that meat with a 'specialty label' is safer than conventionally produced meat, or that meat without an animal welfare label has not been produced with the same care for the animal's well-being. The reality is that all meat inspected by USDA-FSIS is held to the same health standards, and all producers and processors are held to the same USDA animal handling standards."
The seminar, which included both an economic overview of the US livestock industry as well as an analysis from the Korea Rural Economic Institute, was an important next step in the ongoing education of Korean importers and buyers, according to Jihae Yang, USMEF-Korea director.
"Some Korean livestock magazines have begun showing an interest in animal welfare and sustainability issues," said Yang. "The messages delivered to these importers and buyers provided a meaningful introduction to these issues, and we expect they will be reported back to a broader audience through these publications."
Through the first four months of 2014, South Korea is the No. 5 market for US pork exports, purchasing 57,269 metric tons (126.3 million pounds) valued at $167.2 million, increases of 31 and 40 percent over last year at this time. Korea also is the No. 6 market for US beef exports (No. 5 in value), purchasing 37,481 metric tons (82.6 million pounds) valued at $256.2 million, up 28 percent in value on 1 percent lower volume.