Everybody likes to root for the home team. But when all the labels are removed and products win or lose based on their merits, American pork is the winner and still champion among South Korean consumers and meat industry experts alike.

For the second consecutive year, South Korea’s top cooking magazine, Cookand, joined with the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) for a blind taste test conducted with panels of food industry experts and consumers to determine which pork would be preferred by Koreans.  Support for the program was provided through the USDA Market Access Program and the Pork Checkoff.

Four types of chilled pork belly and collar butt (U.S., Canadian and two South Korean brands [Sunjin, Moguchon]) were included in the sampling.  To ensure an even playing field, each sample was 10 days old, purchased from the same seller, cut to the same portion size and cooked identically without seasoning.

Each participant judged the samples on tenderness, tastiness and juiciness, as well as how the pork smelled and its texture after cooking.

U.S. pork was the clear winner among the food industry experts on the panel, earning a score of 79 out of 100 vs. 74 for Canadian pork and 74 and 69 for the two Korean brands.  The consumer panel scored U.S. and Canadian pork as a tie with a score of 74, while the two Korean brands earned scores of 62 and 53.

“I favored domestic pork prior to this test, but my preference has changed since the blind test,” said Lee Wook-Jung, producer for KBS television and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, a world-renowned network of culinary schools.  “The tenderness and taste of imported pork was as good as, if not better than, that of Korean pork.”

Cookand magazine assembled an impressive 10-member panel of judges that included a food reporter for the daily newspaper, Hankyoreh; a television producer/Le Cordon Bleu graduate; a food reporter for JoongAng Ilbo, Korea’s top daily newspaper; the owner of Tavern 38, a French-American bistro; the owner-chef of Korean restaurant, Doodukhan Sang; the head chef at Oakwood Hotels; a food critic for JoongAng Ilbo; a cooking instructor and food researcher; a meat wholesaler; and a traditional cookery professor at Baewha Women’s University.

The food industry experts were joined by a panel of 10 consumers, four men and six women, including an international lawyer, a chef, a landscaper, a financier, an advertising agent, several food bloggers, and students studying to be nutritionists and food stylists.

“U.S. pork came out on top in various criteria such as taste, quality and price competitiveness among the consumer panel,” said Kyungok Moon,Cookand editor.  “It was a chance for us to see that consumer perceptions on imported pork have been gradually improving since the first pork blind taste test in 2010.”

Interestingly, the Cookand test comes on the heels of a survey by the Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI), which questioned 750 consumers about their pork preferences.  That survey, which did not feature side-by-side taste tests, showed the respondents home-town bias.  Just over 66% said they believe the quality of domestic pork is better, while just less than 1% said they prefer imported pork.  The balance said they couldn’t tell the difference.

One of the magazine’s survey participants noted the consideration of country of origin in his statement: “After the country of origin was revealed, I saw that I had given the highest score to U.S. pork,” said Jung Hye-Jung, head of the Creative Culinary Institute of Korea.  “Because U.S. pork appeals with good price and quality, my preference didn’t change even after the place of origin was revealed.  This experience helped me get rid of any prejudices against (U.S.) pork,” he added.

“We worked withCookand because it is the leading Korean cooking magazine, and we wanted to make sure the blind taste test was done with complete transparency,” said Jihae Yang, USMEF-Korea director.  “We were very confident of the quality and taste of U.S. pork going into the competition and we will use these results with meat distributors and end-users so they are aware of how well U.S. pork was judged by these experts.”

The test results were published inCookand, as they were after the 2010 blind taste test.  In the first competition, the magazine’s editors also selected collar butt and single-ribbed belly, the most popular pork cuts for Korean consumers.  That contest compared frozen meat samples from Austria, Belgium, Chile and the United States and chilled meat samples from the United States against two domestic brands.

After the 2010 results were in, Cookand editors admitted their surprise at the outcome.  “Beyond our expectations, U.S. pork was rated highly in both the frozen and chilled categories,” the editors wrote. The predisposition of Korean consumers to prefer home-grown product was also noted after the 2010 test.

“What is interesting was the evaluation on personal liking, which was different before and after disclosing the countries of origin,” the editors wrote. “In the case of chilled pork, U.S. pork scored high before disclosing the countries of origin. However, once the countries of origin and prices were revealed, domestic branded pork also scored high. These findings show that the professionals have some degree of emotional preference for domestic brands.”

South Korea is the No. 5 market for U.S. pork exports through the first four months of 2012, accounting for 67,061 metric tons (147.8 million pounds) valued at $192.7 million.  Those totals are down from 2011, as Korea rebounds from a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that devastated the nation’s pork industry last year. Still, pork exports nearly double the volume and triple the value exported in the first four months of 2010.  The March 15 implementation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement will also help U.S. exports as it brings about the eventual elimination of all tariffs on U.S. pork imports.