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Seoul Dairy is All About Keeping Trust of South Korean Mothers

Because so many Asian consumers look to them for food safety cues, the influence of South Korean mothers is hard to overestimate. Just ask Wan Sik Kim, managing director of the food safety center at Seoul-based Maeil Dairies. He’ll tell you that no force in the country, not government regulators nor the competition, has more power over food safety in South Korea than the mothers of its children.

And they are a demanding lot, rewarding only those producers who go well beyond doing 100 percent when it comes to food safety. That’s why, throughout Asia, consumers are known to follow the actions of Korean mothers regarding food and food safety. In the past decade, they’ve reshaped Asia’s baby formula market.

Back then, the upscale South Korean woman who became pregnant was likely to choose the Abbott Laboratories product sold under the Similac brand because it was the choice of American women. But today, the infant formula market in South Korea and Asia has undergone constant and dramatic change. Maeil Dairies has emerged as a winner, especially in recent years, with its “Absolute W” and “Absolute Sensitive” brands of infant formula.

To earn the trust of those ever-skeptical South Korean mothers, Maeil has become more involved with them than most in corporate America could ever imagine. Maeil’s embrace of South Korean mothers goes way beyond including them in surveys and focus groups. Here are a few examples:

Breast Milk Sampling

There is no dispute that mother’s milk is best, but it is not all the same. The Maeil Breast Milk Research Center takes samples of breast milk and conducts an analysis, providing the mother with a report and a free health check in the name of promoting the health and growth of babies.

Baby Poop Analysis

South Korean mothers have long been taught that baby poop reveals the current health of their babies. Maeil began inviting mothers to bring pictures of their babies’ stools to health fairs held in conjunction with Korea’s pediatric association and was overwhelmed. (Many skipped the photo and just brought in the filled diaper.)

Baby poop analysis, mostly now via pictures, is part of the company’s routine service. It’s all caught up in South Korea’s embrace of technology, with its own Smartphone and iPhone apps, along with data on the website.

Baby-Exclusive Dairy Farms

Among 6,000 South Korean dairy farms, Maeil has selected 70 as the cleanest with the more stringent safety practices to be “Absolute Baby-Exclusive Milk Farms” to ensure that only the cleanest and healthiest milk will be used in its baby formula.

Mom School

New and prospective parents, especially mothers, are encouraged to attend Maeil’s “Mom School,” which teaches nutrition and other lessons surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and infant care.

Maeil Child Center

South Korean mothers are welcome to bring their infants along as they attend informational programs or seek one-on-one consulting services.

Ever since the 2008 Chinese melamine scandal, Asia’s infant formula market has been on a bumpy ride. While not comparable to the melamine scandal, which saw 54,000 Chinese infants hospitalized and at least six deaths from drinking baby formula contaminated with melamine, China recently has been defending against potentially tainted imports.

Earlier this year, the giant Fonterra Cooperative of New Zealand had to recall its milk from around the globe when a harmful bacterium was found in three batches of its whey protein.

China has responded with import restrictions and plans to conduct foreign inspections to pick the facilities that will be permitted to export to that country. In preparation for the inspection of Maeil’s facilities, Kim has added a Chinese food safety expert to his staff of about 30 professionals. Maeil is connected electronically to China’s regulatory system for food and dairy products.

And China, where the communist government has recently abandoned its so-called “one-child” policy, stands as a potential “baby boom” market as couples will be able to more easily have larger families. This stands in stark contrast to South Korea, where increasing prosperity runs counter to a decreasing birth rate.

China’s milk market is also increasingly diversified. Organic milk and baby food have gained a foothold in China in only the past couple of years, with European and American companies rolling in to meet the demand.

Kim, however, worries not about the coming inspection by China. He worries about those South Korean mothers. He says his team is built around doing everything possible to keep them safe.

Maeil’s commitment to keeping infant formula, baby food, and its host of other products safe begins with the raw materials that go into each product, Kim says. The source of each component and where it falls on the supply chain are all continually traced and tracked.

Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the six-reactor Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan, radioactive testing has been added to the routine at Maeil. Kim says Maeil enforces it own strict standards because its South Korean consumers are “sensitive to food safety.”

“Food safety is our number-one goal,” Kim adds. “It’s the base upon which we build everything else.”

It remains to be seen how Maeil will take advantage of the new South Korea National Food Cluster known as Foodpolis, which is getting under construction near Iksan. Among the goals of Foodpolis is to expand the exports of South Korean companies such as Maeil.

South Korea is the world’s eight-largest trading country, with a volume exceeding $1 trillion per year. Maeil spans the globe, exporting infant formula, baby food, special milk powder, beverages, fermented milk, soymilk and cheese to more than 20 countries.

(Editor’s Note: Dan Flynn recently visited South Korea as a guest of Foodpolis, the National Food Cluster.)

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