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So you'd like your beef to come from safer pastures? Check out this new tracking system.

If you eat meat, this could be a method to insist on implementing in the U.S.

South Korea is doing this traceability thing with their farm-to-table movement.

Note: I'm going to set aside the debate about whether people should eat meat (it's a whole 'nother article, let's be real) and talk about best practices in bringing safe cuts of meat to consumers.


Truce?

Because what South Korea is doing is pretty rad.

The Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has been tracking cattle from birth to the supermarket since 2004 in an effort to assure consumers that food is safe to eat. It's described as a tightly engineered collection of data for agricultural products from production to the grocery store — requiring a lot of coordination between farms, distributors, and middle men.

The program is voluntary unless the brand wants certain designations like GAP ("good agricultural practice"). In order to achieve that coveted label, they are required to register for the traceability program.

The program started when citizens became incredibly skittish about mad-cow disease.

Mad-cow disease is pretty rare, but it scared the bejesus out of people when it made headlines. Since then, other microorganisms like E. coli and superbugs have raised concerns about beef, too.

South Korea's government was thinking about how to protect people:

"The idea was to remove problematic meat before it reached the market. ... In this case what they wanted was to be more pro-active to sell meat that is free of bacteria and bad microorganisms."
— Professor Rajiv Kishore, University at Buffalo School of Management

They're tracing information about the cow, including whether it was ever ill, whether it was given antibiotics, and what farm and group of cows it came from.

All the consumer has to do to find out this information is scan a code on the package.

Scan and bam! You know your beef's credit history and mother's maiden name. Image by Paul Wilkinson/Flickr.

Now that people have had several years to get acquainted with this, what's up?

Researchers with the University at Buffalo's School of Management surveyed 245 shoppers at a Korean consumer food convention about the food tracing program.

One of the researchers, Rajiv Kishore, tells Upworthy that nearly 70% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they intended to buy products supported by the beef traceability system in the near future. Responses of consumers who were motivated to purchase the higher-priced, traceable beef over the non-traced, cheaper alternatives also showed that they didn't care to actually track down the information via the QR code. Simply knowing the data was there and was being (reliably) documented was good enough for them.

"It's my bulgogi, I'll QR if I want to." Image by Tragrpx/public domain.

Why?

Because they really, really trust their government's oversight of the program. Unlike some countries (*cough cough*), they feel their government is given enough control and power to enforce the data collection to keep farms and distributors compliant. So when citizens see a label on a food package that's certified by their government, they presume it really means something and isn't just "greenwashing" — in other words, cattle farmers can't just pay a lot for a fancy label that makes people feel good.

Can this work in America?

"Rhymes with Schmitizens Zunited?" Image by Sutha Kamal/Flickr.

There are lots of challenges to re-creating this practice in the United States. Kishore acknowledges that since there is no traceability program of this caliber in America, the only way to come close would be to survey consumers about how they would feel about such a program in the abstract.

Certainly, beyond that, America would have a lot to contend with in terms of competing interests. If popular demand called for such a high-caliber tracking system, it would require passing legislation. As seen with GMO-labeling efforts, that hasn't been a straightforward, people-powered process.

But there is a lot of talk in America about free-market principles, too. Kishore touches on this:

"In today's world, the fact is that consumers are willing to pay a premium price. These products are more expensive than the regular non-certified, and people are willing to pay that higher price; it creates a market incentive."

South Korea's model gives us a lot to think about.

South Korea has been doing this for around 11 years (and remember, it's voluntary — not imposed on cattle farmers). Whether America ends up implementing this or not, this is a practice to watch globally. It may make its way here if the market demands it.

And hey, maybe having a surefire way to track down foods that could need a recall and pulling them from shelves before customers purchase them isn't a bad idea anyway.

Anyone who's ever had a bout of food poisoning, can I get a "hallelujuah"?

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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