South Korea protects national cuisine

The TradiFood website contains information including recipes, photographs, nutritional values and cultural significance on over 3,500 dishes, some gathered from ancient historical texts.

The overwhelming popularity of Korean cuisine (also known as “hansik”) overseas has urged the South Korean government to take active steps to ensure the promotion and protection of its national culture and heritage.

For 5 years now, the South Korean government has been running the food database website www.tradifood.net, which was launched in order to protect hansik as a sovereign intellectual right.

The website is managed by the Korea Food Research Institute (KFRI), and was designed over a year-long period as part of a collaboration with the Korea Agency of Digital Opportunity and Promotion and Korea Institute of Science and Technology.

Containing information on over 3,500 dishes, many gathered from ancient historical texts, the website offers mouthwatering photographs, recipes and other details including the nutritional values of said dishes as well as their cultural history and significance.

The main aim of the website is to offer a variety of data and information on traditional Korean food to the public, a spokesman from KFRI stated. But above all, this has been seen to be a strategic move by the South Korean government to ensure that Korean food is protected and recognized as a product of the country’s rich traditions and culture.

KFRI spokesman Lim Seon-kyu explained that “As competition intensifies on the global stage to secure various intellectual property rights, companies in many advanced countries muscle into developing countries to occupy their traditional knowledge in order to develop them into lucrative industrial technologies”.

As an example, around 70-80% of all medicinal herbs patents in the United States involve spices and/or indigenous plants originating from India. South Korea has also fallen victim to such a “cultural invasion”.

Back in 1983, Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, filed patent applications in 15 countries, including South Korea, to protect a process that produces vegetable juice through fermentation. This process bears striking similarities to the ancient process used by Koreans to make kimchi, a famous, traditional side dish made of fermented vegetables. Back then, no official texts or references were available to prevent Nestlé from obtaining such patents.

However, the Swiss-based corporation’s patent application in South Korea failed as individuals, local businesses and other entities filed combined complaints with the government in order to prevent Nestlé’s move. Nevertheless, Nestle succeeded in obtaining patents for the process in other countries.

It would have been easier to prevent Nestle or any other company from making such a move had kimchi-making processes and technologies been documented or compiled in a database in order to be used for patent-related cases in other countries, the KFRI said.

Under the regulations of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the building of an integrated database is essential for any traditional knowledge to be afforded protection as a sovereign right.

In running the website, KFRI expects to meet global and WIPO’s database standards. Apart from its role in the protection of intellectual property rights, the website will also provide Korean companies with useful information regarding the industrialization of traditional food items into commercial food products, the KFRI added.

“This website will contribute to protection of intellectual property rights related to traditional Korean food…it will also help better promote our food to the public…” KFRI President Lee Moo-ha stated.

The establishment of the website shows South Korea’s recognition of the importance of protecting the country’s intellectual property rights, and it would be of no surprise to see other countries follow suit in future.