The issue came to light during a joint inspection conducted by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) and Korea Consumer Agency (KCA).
The two conducted inspection on the quality, safety, and labelling of 26 products claimed to be 100 per cent krill oil and are the top 20 best sellers on the Naver Shopping website.
Of which, four were found to contain linoleic acid fatty acids present in vegetable oil and other types of oils and fats.
The four products are “10 seconds Krill oil” (녹십초크릴오일), “Meat Krill Oil Max” (미프 크릴오일 맥스), “Krill oil 1000” (크릴오일 1000), and “Premium Reel Med Krill Oil 58” (프리미엄 리얼메디 크릴오일 58).
They were found to contain linoleic acid in the range of 27.6 per cent and 28 per cent, while the permitted linoleic acid level according to the CODEX standard is between 0.0 and 3.0 per cent.
Some of the manufacturers of these products include prominent South Korean contract manufacturer Cosmax NBT, Rp Bio, Nok Sib Cho, and Natural F&P. The products will expire between June this year and June next year.
The KCA has advised companies selling these products to allow product exchanges and refunds.
The inspection was carried as krill oil products have become more popular as consumers become more increased in health foods.
However, krill oil is classified as a general food and not yet recognised as a health functional food in South Korea.
“As krill oil products that have not been sufficiently verified for efficacy and effectiveness may be mistaken as health functional foods, the MFDS and KCA will strengthen information provision and management of related products,” the MFDS said in a statement.
Last year, the MFDS said that it would introduce a one-year policy which required all imported Antarctic krill products, including supplements, to be proven safe before they could be imported into the country. The one-year policy will end on August 31 this year.
Norwegian krill oil supplier Rimfrost pointed out that negative press coverage was affecting responsible firms, although its products were not amongst those blacklisted by the MFDS.
“For Rimfrost, the South Korean market has been fantastic since the beginning of 2019 with an incredible growth. The market is driven by TV commercials…
“Market dropped significantly May 2020 due to the first negative press release from KFDA where several products was spotlighted due to mislabelling and usage of illegal substances,” Karl-Erik Slinning, executive VP, Sales, Research and Development at Rimfrost told NutraIngredients-Asia.
Last year, the MFDS recalled 12 krill oil products after safety tests found banned substances or excessive use of solvents in the products.
Krill oil has gaining popularity in South Korea in recent years due to its nutritional value, Slinning added.
“The driver behind sales in South Korea is the total package of the following nutrients: phospholipids, long chain omega-3s, and the powerful natural antioxidant - astaxanthin.
“Compared to fish oil, krill oil has a very high level of phospholipid, which is a very important constituent of cell membranes in all living organisms. The long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA/ DHA are bound to phospholipids which are more easily absorbed by humans.”
Another company which has built a presence in South Korea is Aker BioMarine. The krill oil ingredient supplier partners Pulses in selling the product Krill56.
“Krill56 has extended its strong market position and is recognised as the leading krill oil brand in Korea,” said Tim de Haas, EVP Human Health and Nutrition, Aker BioMarine Antarctic AS.
He said consumers have been demanding full transparency when it concerned the origins of the products.
To meet this demand, the company has been using a GPS system onboard the vessels, which will allow it to register the catch location of the krill which it has caught.
A key challenge for the krill oil industry in South Korea now, is to win back the trust of consumers, said Slinning.
Slinning said they welcomed dialogue with customers and consumers and also hoped for stricter import rules of krill oil into South Korea, as well as stepping up the frequency of krill oil import testing.
This could in turn filter out the “non-serious” industry players in the process, he said.
Also acknowledging that there are supplier companies who have not been compliant with the regulations, de Haas stressed that Aker BioMarine has been working closely with regulatory institutions to ensure that the company has been fully compliant with regulatory requirements of each market where its products were sold.
“We highly support strict regulatory enforcement to ensure that consumers only get good and approved krill oil products.
“To help support that, we have engaged with third party verification programs like Orivo to implement transparent and objective measurements with regards to the purity of our krill oil products,” he said.