There’s nothing like food to bring people together.
During the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s 2018 Japan Heartland Tour, conversations around food – and pork specifically – helped build better relationships and increased understanding of a culture that is bringing more pork into the Japanese diet.
Japan is a critical market for many U.S. agricultural products, especially pork. In 2017, Japan imported more than $1.626 billion worth of U.S. pork, making it the No. 1 export market in terms of value. That dollar amount represents approximately 868 million pounds of U.S. pork.
“Japan is a key country for us,” says Gregg Hora, Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) president. “In addition to buying the premium cuts of pork, Japan also utilizes some of the lesser known meat products from the carcass.
“We have a superior product and story to tell,” Hora says. “It’s the perfect time for Japan to be buying more U.S. pork.”
Craig Morris, vice president of international marketing for the National Pork Board, joined Hora and other agriculture commodity leaders on the Heartland Tour to visit retail and food service establishments in Japan. The goal was to better understand the domestic demands of the country, as well as participate in a tasting of U.S. pork and beef products that are sold in-country. The tour, partly funded by Pork Checkoff dollars, allowed U.S. producers and industry leaders to build relationships with key Japanese buyers and influencers to help maximize producer returns.
From Osaka to Tokyo
The tour started in Osaka, Japan, an area known for its dynamic food culture. After surviving Typhoon Jebi, the team visited retail venues and witnessed U.S. pork promotional campaigns firsthand.
“We saw a lot of emphasis on small package sizes and pre-packaged foods,” Morris said. “Japan is experiencing an increase in two-income households and single people living in the city, so convenience is king. This creates an opportunity for us to find ways to market our product appropriately… to continue winning in that market.”
For example, the way pork is showcased and sold depends largely on the retail establishment, he added. Supermarkets, clubs, and warehouse outlets where fresh U.S. pork is found account for the majority of the market. But, convenience stores, where pork is sold prepared and ready to eat, or sold in heat-and-eat form, already accounts for almost 15% of the retail market. This number is on the rise as convenience stores continue to increase in popularity across the country with time-strapped customers.
In addition to visiting a long-standing butcher shop and a Japanese slaughter, processing, and auction facility, the team visited with buyers, government officials, stakeholders, and retailers during the trip.
“They want to know where their food is produced, how it is produced, and how it is handled,” Hora says. “It’s very important in their culture, so it is up to us to meet the needs of our customers by providing information they want so they’ll have confidence in buying their pork from us.”
During the tour, the team soft-launched the new Pork Checkoff-funded USMEF initiative called "Mitsuboshi-Three Star American Pork.”
The Mitsuboshi campaign complements the existing emotional-driven and consumer-facing U.S. pork promotional program in the market named Gochipo. Gochipo is an animated pig that highlights the superiority of U.S. pork to Japanese consumers.
Heartbeat of the Country
Morris is optimistic about the opportunity for U.S. pork to gain an even larger market share in Japan. Currently, U.S. pork enjoys a 15% market share, behind only Japanese domestic product.
In Japan, the highest increases of pork and beef consumption are taking place in the age range of 60+. Although they don’t eat as much as 20- to 30-year-olds, the percentage increase in this age group is key because disposable incomes are higher.
“We can continue to succeed in capturing a larger portion of this important export market pie with the knowledge we gain from trips like this,” Morris adds. “If we can walk away from the Heartland Tour remembering that pork is not only center of the plate – but as a food, is the heartbeat of the country and the best indicator of Japan’s culture —we can, and will, be successful.”