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Industry CEOs Conclude Asian Assessment Tour in Japan

Published: Jun 20, 2011
U.S. red meat industry CEOs wrapped up their North Asia tour last Friday after two-plus days of meetings and market visits in Tokyo.
Coming 100 days after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the group was briefed on ongoing U.S. industry quake and tsunami relief efforts, and discussed market access issues and marketing opportunities in the key Japanese market. The group met with a diverse group of importers, U.S. and Japanese government officials, academics and U.S. packer/exporter members. The group also observed a U.S. beef and pork promotion at a typical neighborhood supermarket.

USMEF's relief efforts continue to receive accolades from many within the industry and government. USMEF's meal service program, one of the largest among foreign private donors, will have served an estimated 80,000 pork meals and 50,000 beef meals throughout the affected area by the end of July.

"The U.S. beef and pork industries have been clear leaders in terms of providing timely assistance, and the contributions have been greatly appreciated within Japan," said Philip Seng, USMEF president and CEO.

The Japanese beef and pork market situation has largely stabilized, Seng said, but he indicated that the ongoing challenges at the Fukushima nuclear complex still have some Japanese consumers concerned about domestic food safety.

With the stabilization of the domestic markets, USMEF's efforts will begin to shift next month to a “recovery” promotion mode, including featuring U.S. beef and pork at more than 2,000 retail and foodservice outlets.

"It’s time again to start pushing U.S. beef and pork harder through commercial channels,” said Takemichi Yamashoji, USMEF-Japan's marketing director. “We are seeing new interest in U.S. red meats from both existing and new users.”

Despite stabilization in the meat markets, the atmosphere for resolving U.S. beef and pork access issues remains challenging. Japan has bowed out – at least in the short run – from participating in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) discussions. Japan's TPP inclusion was viewed as an opportunity to discuss further liberalization of Japan's beef and pork border measures. Although Japan's political leadership and other decision makers, including agriculture and health officials, have clearly focused on dealing with the quake aftermath, the return of some normalcy is conducive to restarting engagement on the issue of beef access.

"We believe beef discussions can ensue,” said Seng. “With demand for U.S. beef surging, we need more access urgently."

The delegation also discussed ways to engage with Japan to reform cumbersome border inspection procedures. Although U.S. beef exports have been strong this year, the 20-month age restriction and border inspection issues have crimped U.S. supply capability. Japan’s imports of U.S. beef through April 2011 are still just one-third the pace of 2003.

"Japan's attitude toward meat and agricultural imports is changing,” Seng said. “There is more concern over the reliability of consistently affordable supplies."

The delegation fielded a number of questions about the direction of grain markets in the U.S. High global grain prices affect Japanese livestock production because of the sector's dependence on imports, especially corn.

Market observers note that the U.S. has a competitive advantage in shipping large volumes of chilled pork to Japanese retailers, and it is a segment that could grow with more consumer outreach explaining U.S. pork quality and safety attributes. Currently, most U.S. chilled pork sold in Japanese retail outlets is merchandized as a value proposition. USMEF is investing in a number of new initiatives to differentiate U.S. product from the competition and add overall value.

Total U.S. beef exports to Japan in the first four months of 2011 were 37 percent of the corresponding 2003 export volume, but equivalent to nearly 60 percent of 2003 export value. Based on weekly export data for January through June 9, U.S. beef exports to Japan totaled 56,280 metric tons (124.1 million pounds), a 79 percent increase over 2010.

Total U.S. pork exports to Japan in the first four months of 2011 increased 17 percent in volume and value to 165,775 metric tons (365.5 million pounds) valued at $616.5 million. Pork exports set a new monthly record in March (46,914 metric tons).