When you talk with pork exporters, there are many customers around the world, but Japan remains the prime target – the center of the bulls-eye – when it comes to value.  That’s not only true in the United States, but pork-exporting countries around the world are also focusing their resources on building their share of this critical export market.

Although overall U.S. pork exports to Japan declined 7% in volume and 5 % in value in 2013, the United States’ share of the critical chilled pork market grew as American exporters pursued this higher-value niche.  And while Japan is certainly a developed market, there are segments that offer significant growth potential.

One such niche is Japan’s foodservice sector, where a key opportunity exists for processed pork products.  A survey that the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) took at the Japan Foodservice Association Show identified this new niche potential: about half of the respondents have not yet utilized any processed U.S. pork products.

Currently, Japan imports about 12,000 metric tons (mt) of sausage and 2,200 mt of ham and bacon per year, leaving substantial growth potential – particularly at foodservice – for new menu items.  A recent USMEF Pork Workshop, developed for a specific audience of purchasing managers, menu developers and marketing staff of leading Japanese foodservice companies with financial support from the Pork Checkoff, introduced nine U.S. pork brands to the attendees through product samples and face-to-face meetings with sellers.

 

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An important focus of the workshop, according to Takemichi Yamashoji, USMEF-Japan’s senior marketing director, was to enable foodservice operators to understand the taste and quality of processed U.S. pork items and to see the advantages of utilizing pre-cooked products to improve food-preparation efficiency.  Specific menu items geared to Japanese izakaya pubs and family restaurants were developed for sampling.

Small and regional supermarkets are another market segment with potential.  USMEF recently held its first processed pork seminar and tasting session in collaboration with CGC Japan, a voluntary cooperative group representing 225 companies and 3,800 outlets of regional and small supermarkets.  The dual goal of these sessions is to expand awareness of U.S. pork products and displace international competitors as CGC’s leading source of imported pork.

In working with its processor and exporter members, USMEF-Japan focused on menu suggestions using the shoulder end, cushion and loin.  We received a very favorable response to the offerings and several companies already are planning to introduce U.S. pork cushion meat to their product line.

At the other end of the food industry spectrum, USMEF recently hosted a business development team from Nippon Ham Group (NHG), Japan’s largest meat distributing group, to encourage greater utilization of U.S. pork through NHG’s channels.  Soon after, NHG hosted more than 18,000 people at its annual trade shows in Tokyo and Osaka and introduced its “American Fair” display with merchandising ideas and point-of-purchase materials.

Stuffed pork, roast pork and a special barbecue rub created during USMEF’s New Concepts and Innovations Initiative with NHG staff were featured at the American Fair as part of NHG’s expanded commitment to U.S. red meat sales.

U.S. pork exports to Japan in 2013 were down from 2012 levels, totaling just under $1.9 billion in value.  However, the strength of this high-margin market, which attracted pork products from 26 different exporting nations last year, helped drive sales and market share growth from several EU pork exporters (Spain, the Netherlands and Germany), while Mexico improved on its No. 4 rank among exporters to Japan, increasing sales by 7% last year.

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