The high-end South Korean lifestyle magazine, Luxury, devoted 12 pages of its current issue to steak, and a significant portion of that special feature focused on U.S. prime beef, dry-aged American beef and restaurants that feature them.
Korean consumers' perception of U.S. beef is improving, steadily returning to the positive levels of 2003 when American beef was the dominant imported beef. That was evidenced by the fact that five of the seven restaurants spotlighted in Luxury sold U.S. ribeye and striploin steaks in conjunction with domestic (Hanwoo) tenderloins. Two restaurants offered Australian ribeyes.
The taste profile of grain-fed U.S. beef, along with its competitive price, are driving demand for the American imports and helping foster a substantial interest in dry-aged beef.
"U.S. ribeyes and striploins meet the preferred specifications for dry aging," says Jihae Yang, USMEF-Korea director, who was interviewed for the Luxury article. "Hanwoo beef, which is in high demand from Korean-style barbecue restaurants, is too expensive considering the loss after dry-aging. U.S. beef is the true leader in this category."
One influential Korean restaurateur and beef expert, Young-sik Park, chief executive officer of SG Dine Hill which operates six high-end restaurants in Seoul, commented in the article that U.S. beef is "nutritionally great," and referenced a "healthy menu campaign" which recommends that children eat red meat daily.
Similarly, the meat buyer for the upscale Shilla Hotel, Yong-ju Lee, says his confidence in U.S. beef because the cattle are raised on corn, soybeans and grass, and "vitamin-packed" chilled beef is imported to Korea without preservatives.
"As more Koreans travel around the world, the more familiar they become with premium cuisine," adds USMEF's Yang. "The trend toward focusing a beef menu on U.S. prime beef started with Goo STK, a Seoul restaurant that made its name by serving only U.S. prime steaks. Now, U.S. beef is rising in the perception of consumers who view it as the centerpiece of a special meal."
A report issued last week by South Korea's Rural Economic Institute (KREI) was fairly bullish for U.S. beef consumption in Korea, noting that a January 2012 survey found that 52.3% of consumers had purchased U.S. beef compared to 48% in 2011 and just 22% in 2010. When consumers who purchase U.S. beef were asked what they would cut back on in favor of U.S. beef, about 41% said Australian beef and 30% said domestic beef.
Per capita beef consumption increased by more than 20% in 2011 to 10.7 kg (23.5 pounds). This is a remarkable increase of nearly 60% from 2005 and 2006 when U.S. beef was absent from the market.
Through the first 11 months of 2011, U.S. beef exports to South Korea were up 38% in volume and 32% in value versus 2010, reaching 139,663 metric tons (307.9 million pounds) valued at $618.3 million.