Soaring South Korean beef prices should be welcome news for its hard-pressed cattle farmers, but a failure to rebuild herds and customers balking at paying record levels for prized local "Hanwoo" meat mean imports are set to keep pouring in.
Overseas purchases by the world's sixth-biggest buyer are at four-year highs and a further rise is expected in 2016 - mainly benefiting Australia - as South Koreans' loyalty towards local beef is tested by prices climbing 35 percent in eight months.
Native bred Hanwoo cattle are often pampered by their farmers and South Koreans consider the meat top class, at least akin to Japan's globally recognised Wagyu beef. While locals have been prepared to pay more for Hanwoo, their willingness to shell out extra may have reached a tipping point now.
"Hanwoo is the food we cannot skip on special days like holidays and rituals for ancestors, but on a regular basis my husband and I eat imported beef as Hanwoo is so expensive," said Park Hee-jung, a 62-year-old housewife, who was shopping at a department store in Seoul.
Local beef ribs currently fetch 4,912 Korean won ($4.13) per 100 grams, almost triple the price of Australian ribs, data from Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp shows.
And according to a survey by Korea Rural Economic Institute, this is much higher than the 1.67 times more South Koreans are prepared to pay over the price of Australian ribs.
"It's a tough time to sell," said cattle farmer Min Jae-ki, who also runs a butcher's restaurant in Hongseong, 150 kilometres (93 miles) southwest of Seoul. "We are charging the same as before although beef prices have gone up. Otherwise customers won't come."