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Pork Belly Price Stymies Purchases

by 5m Editor
22 March 2011, at 11:20am

SOUTH KOREA - As the price of pork rises, Koreans are giving up their beloved pork belly to seek alternative cuts and sources of protein.

Koreans’ preference for pork belly, as opposed to any other cut of pork, is legendary with it being a staple at restaurants as well as in homes, according to Korea Joongang Daily. According to E-Mart, Korea’s largest discount store chain, more than 40 per cent of their total pork sales usually come from a pork belly. According to the latest numbers from the Korea Swine Association, pork belly accounts for 48 per cent of all store-bought pork in Korea.

This is a mirror opposite from Western nations, where the loin and ham (hind leg) cuts are often the most expensive and prized among pork. Even in neighboring Japan, loin and ham together compose more than 60 per cent of consumption, while pork belly accounts for only 15 per cent.

Pork belly is also the undisputed staple of local company dinners and outings. According to a survey of 893 professionals, by job search portal JobKorea last December, 75.7 per cent said pork belly was the most frequent menu at their end-of-the-year gatherings.

But even Korean consumers cannot stand by pork belly in the face of skyrocketing prices. The price of pork belly in Seoul, which sold for 8,400 won ($7.47) per 500 grams at the end of last year, rose 65 per cent in less than three months to 13,900 won as of 16 March, according to the Korea Price Research Center.

This has caused a shift in pork purchasing patterns. According to E-Mart earlier this month, sales of cheaper ham and loin cuts of pork have increased as customers abandon the expensive pork belly and shoulder cuts.

The front leg cut accounted for 13.9 per cent of pork sales at E-Mart between 1 January and 10 March, a 3.3 per centage point rise from a year ago. On the other hand, the market share of pork belly fell by 5.9 per centage points to 43.7 per cent and shoulder cuts fell by 6 per centage points to 18.3 per cent.

“Considering that such changes are visible even though pork belly prices are comparatively lower in discount stores - due to bargain sales - other retail markets must see a higher preference for alternative pork cuts such as ham,“ said Moon Joo-seok, a buyer at E-Mart.

This is part of a larger trend of customers migrating to cheaper alternatives as climbing prices or inadequate supplies take the shine off many popular grocery items. Korean customers are reaching for soy milk in the face of a milk supply crunch and cheaper dried pollack instead of high-priced mackerel. For example, at leading e-commerce Web site GMarket, sales of soymilk between 11-24 February increased by 105 per cent on year.

Local experts say that one positive aspect of customer migration to other pork cuts might be a chance for the public to develop more diverse and healthy tastes.

“It will be difficult to change a local food culture that only prefers pork belly,“ said Kim Seong-wan, a professor at the Nonghyup Anseong Training Institute. “Developing a variety of cooking methods for low-fat pork cuts, marketing efforts and a change in customer awareness is necessary.“