American beef began reaching Koreans' dinner tables despite anti-U.S. beef candlelit vigils and lingering public concern over its safety.
Most big discount stores are still reluctant to deck their shelves with American beef in fear of public backlash. But it seems to be a matter of time before refrigerators of restaurants and households of Koreans are filled with "Made in U.S.'' beef.
Midday Friday, dozens of people were standing in line in front of a five meter square butcher's shop "A-Meat FC'' in Keumchon, southwestern Seoul. Some, seemingly from remote areas, rushed to join the crowd after parking their vehicles in nearby spaces. The shop's inside was bursting at the seams with customers while five workers were busy tapping electronic cash registers and packing ordered meat.
"We have skipped meals for days,'' a cashier said. "Customers gather from opening till closing time.'' This imported-meat-only shop began selling American beef on Tuesday, six days after the government's official notification of U.S. beef imports.
"It's selling like hot cakes,'' said Park Chang-kyu, the shop owner. "Of course, it was not an easy decision to sell American beef amid public sentiment hostile to U.S. beef. But look. It's amazing.''
A male customer, who drove to the shop from Yeoido to buy beef, said "I will buy U.S. beef equivalent to 100,000 won ($100). American beef fits our taste and is much cheaper than Korean beef.''
Prices of U.S. beef vary― sirloin is 2,300 won per 100 grams, and beef for Bulgogi and soup are 900 won and 650 won, respectively.
"The prices are roughly one third of Korean beef,'' Park said. "We purchase 5 tons of U.S. beef per day but it's insufficient to meet customers' demand. We plan to buy more.
''Currently, there are only two beef shops dealing with American beef in Seoul including A-Meat F.C. But a growing number of shops are expected to handle American beef from next week at the earliest as the demand for the imported beef soars.
According to the association of meat importers, 2 tons of U.S. beef have been sold since July 1 through the two butcher shops.
Two other restaurant chains with 50 branches nationwide ― Damiso and Oredrim ― are considering adding U.S. beef to their menu.
Hi-Food, a mass-circulator for imported beef, also said it planned to ask the quarantine office to check 400 tons of U.S. beef they imported from August but recently decided to advance the date to next week to meet customers' demand.
"We have received numerous calls from clients. We cannot help handling American beef again despite outstanding concern over the meat,'' said Park Bong-soo, Hi-Food president.
The meat-importing association, comprised of 130 wholesalers and retailers, will launch a nationwide campaign from July 15 to raise public awareness of safety of U.S. beef and to boost consumption.
The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said Friday more than 1,000 tons of American beef have completed quarantine inspection.