DENVER – In Asian markets such as South Korea, animal welfare and sustainability still aren’t popular topics of conversation. But it is only a matter of time before they will be. The US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) office in Korea recently hosted a workshop for 230 Korean red-meat importers, distributors, retail and foodservice operators to give them insights into the care that the US beef and pork industries take in raising livestock and in caring for the land supporting producing American red meat.

The event received funding support from the USDA Market Access Program (MAP), the Beef Checkoff Program and the Pork Checkoff.

This nation is important to US meat exporters. Through the first four months of 2014, South Korea is the fifth-largest market for US pork exports, purchasing 57,269 metric tons (126.3 million lbs.) 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 (fifth in value), purchasing 37,481 metric tons (82.6 million lbs.) valued at $256.2 million, up 28 percent in value on 1 percent lower volume.

Progress American agriculture has achieved in efficient resource utilization was highlighted by Travis Arp, USMEF’s manager of technical services, who also discussed the industry’s ability to produce more high-quality red meat with the same or fewer animals in a humane environment.

“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,” Arp said. “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.”

The positive environmental impacts the US pork and beef industries have made were outlined by Arp, which resulted in significant reductions in water use, land use, greenhouse emissions and energy consumption. He further noted how the 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. Meanwhile, between 1977 and 2007 the US beef industry increased the yield per animal 28 percent, requiring only four animals to produce the same amount of beef as five animals produced 30 years earlier.

The US livestock industry has improved its efficiency and has focused on animal welfare, working to ensure all food animals and working animals receive 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,” Arp said. “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.”

Some meat producers in the US 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, which isn’t the case currently in South Korea. Arp said 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. “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 included an economic overview of the US livestock industry plus an analysis from the Korea Rural Economic Institute. “Some Korean livestock magazines have begun showing an interest in animal welfare and sustainability issues,” said Jihae Yang, USMEF-Korea director. “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.”