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Suspicious Kimchi Imports Draws Government Attention in S. Korea

Traditional Korean kimchi packs a spicy sting that most South Koreans never go without. But now, a new report about kimchi imports is causing some Koreans to break into a sweat.

Kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage, is a traditional side dish for at least two meals a day in South Korea. In simpler times, most South Korean families fermented their own kimchi in giant outdoor pots. But over the past few years, busy South Koreans have often turned to less expensive kimchi imported from China.

Now, a new study is raising eyebrows among many South Koreans about what that imported kimchi may contain. The government's Research Institute for Public Health and Environment says Chinese kimchi imports were shown to have traces of lead three to five times higher than Korean kimchi.

There is no official government standard for how much lead kimchi can contain, and some Chinese kimchi makers have disputed the study.

Nevertheless, Cho Keum-ok, a restaurant owner in downtown Seoul, says customers are expressing their concern. Mrs. Cho says customers frequently ask whether the kimchi they are served comes from China or South Korea.

The staff at many larger restaurants simply do not know, because the restaurants buy from a central distributor.

Lee Jun-young, from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told South Korea's YTN network that the government wants consumers to have better information. Mr. Lee says authorities are trying to update food regulations so that restaurants will be required to inform consumers whether their kimchi is foreign or domestic.

In the meantime, domestic kimchi makers say they are experiencing a surge in sales. Chu Lan-ok, a restaurant cook in Seoul, says even without the scare over imports, making kimchi at home has its selling points.

Mrs. Chu says only her own homemade kimchi is for sale at her restaurant. She says there is no substitute for she calls the "flavor of the hand" - something she says a factory in China could never achieve.