South Korean blueberry market snapshot
March 28, 2014

More than 230 trade leaders from 16 countries converged on the RIU Plaza Guadalajara Hotel in Mexico last week for the International Blueberry Organization’s (IBO) fourth summit. Very Berry Korea Corp CEO Chaesup Rim was one of many speakers at the event, who afterwards told about the need for innovation to keep blueberry demand growing in his country’s market.

What was your impression of the IBO conference in Mexico?

It was very much a well organized international event, especially for me coming from Asia. It was very nice to meet all the delegates from the U.S., Europe and South America at once. It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about what is happening in the blueberry world and make networks worldwide.Chaesup-Rim-2-sq

What did you find most valuable about the event, and what were some of the most interesting talks in your opinion?

Making networks globally and collecting market information was very nice. As the blueberry market is facing some global challenges nowadays, it was a good opportunity to build some consensus among participants over the future of blueberry industry.

I personally liked all the country presentations, which gave a global glance of what is going on. The one presentation that caught my eye was by Dr. Chad Finn who presented an overview of blueberry varieties in the U.S.

Was this your first time in Mexico, and what are the current prospects for Mexican blueberry growers in the Korean market?

I have visited Mexico many times before in my earlier work, but this was my first Mexico trip that was blueberry-related.

Mexican blueberries have very little exposure in the Korean market because they are not yet allowed to be imported in fresh form. Mexico exported 44 metric tons (MT) of frozen blueberries to Korea in 2011 and that was it. The U.S., Canada and Chile are the main exporters to the Korean market currently.

Korea is often spoken about as more of a frozen blueberry market than a fresh one. Do you feel this is fair to say, and why?

I think it is fair statement because all the origins of frozen blueberries are allowed to be imported into Korea, while only two parts of the world can export fresh blueberries to Korea: Oregon, U.S. and Chile. Korea has a very tough quarantine system that only allows fresh blueberry exports from those two regions.

Since frozen blueberries are not subject to the Korean quarantine system, it is much easier for international blueberry suppliers to export their fruit frozen to Korea.

How have frozen blueberry sales grown over the years in your market?

There has been a tremendous increase in frozen blueberry consumption in Korea. In 2008, only 489MT of frozen blueberries were imported. This number grew to almost 10,000MT in 2013, while fresh blueberry imports stood at 1,000MT.

The main overseas supplier in frozen would be the U.S., particularly California.

What progress have you seen for fresh blueberries in Korea, and what are your biggest challenges in this regard?

The production of Korean blueberries has grown significantly recent years, recording 5,000MT last year, combined with Oregon State which exported 350MT of fresh blueberries last year, and Chile which sent 650MT.

Korean production will continue to grow because the planted area of 1,500 hectares will produce roughly 15,000MT when the blueberry bushes reach a mature stage.

With domestic production growing and blueberry imports increasing, Korean consumption is reaching its peak with the current applications. The Korean blueberry market would require new kicks or inventions for consuming blueberries in order for the market to stay healthy under the growing blueberry supply, whether it is local or imported.

You mentioned Chile. What is the impression of Chilean blueberries in Korea, and how did the country’s issues like port strikes and fumigation rules in the U.S. affect your market?

Chilean blueberries are doing very well in the Korean market with a rising market share. Because Chile signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Korea in 2004, the import duty on blueberries has been reduced every year. And from 2014, Chilean blueberries, whether frozen or fresh, are being imported with no import duty.

This gives a significant advantage to Chilean blueberries in the Korean market. The news of port strikes or U.S. fumigation issues were not well known to Korean consumers, so these issues had little influence on Chilean blueberry consumption in Korea.

What other Southern Hemisphere countries supply Korea with blueberries?

No other South Americans are in the Korean market with fresh yet, except for Chile. There are frozen blueberries from Argentina but Chilean blueberries dominate the Korean market.

What important changes would you say are taking place in Korean blueberry consumption habits?

Most Korean consumers used to buy expensive blueberries for their health concerns. As more blueberries are being produced locally or imported, the price has come down to a level where most Korean can afford to eat blueberries. Fresh consumption by far is the top consumption area. There are also various applications where blueberries are widely consumed in Korea, from bakeries to cosmetics to pet food.

On a final note, what has the response been to the recent Korea-Australia and Korea-Canada FTAs?

Neither Australia nor Canada have permission yet to export fresh blueberries to Korea. The FTAs may affect their frozen blueberry exports; Australia does very little exporting of this fruit to Korea, and Canada ranks at about 1,000MT of frozen blueberries per year.

Import duties will go down year by year, not as an immediate reduction, so we think they will not have any significant effect on the Korean blueberry market in the short term.

None of Australia nor Canada yet to have permission to export fresh blueberries to Korea. FTA may affect their frozen blueberry export while Australia does very little export to Korea and Canada ranks about 1,000 tons of frozen blueberries in a year. The import duty will go down year by year, not immediate reduction, which we think will not have any effect on Korea blueberry market in the short term.

In the long term, as those countries eventually get permission to export fresh blueberries to Korea, then we will see some influence.

Next year’s IBO conference will take place at Coffs Harbour in Australia from Sep. 7-9.

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