U.S. pork exports to Japan passed a milestone on April 1, as shipments exceeded 200,000 tons for the first time ever, according to just-released Japanese statistics.

Japanese imports of U.S. pork for the period April 1, 2000, to March 31, 2001, totaled 200,084 tons, up 13% from the previous fiscal year, according to Ministry of Finance data.

"Considering that U.S. exports broke the 100,000-ton barrier just five years ago, U.S. pork sales to Japan have effectively doubled in half a decade," says Joel Haggard, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) vice president, Asia-Pacific.

Total Japanese pork imports reached 650,711 tons during the fiscal year, roughly on par with 1999 imports, but below the record level of 663,000 tons, set in 1996. In addition, the U.S. reassumed its position as the leading pork supplier to Japan, as Danish shipments slipped 6.7% to 195,279 tons.

U.S. product finished strongly in the last quarter of the Japanese fiscal year due to higher European prices and concerns over the safety of European product. Japan instituted a temporary ban on most European pork imports on March 23. Most of the growth in U.S. imports occurred in the frozen category as processors raced to find substitute supplies as European shipments fell. However, imports of chilled U.S. pork also grew to nearly 130,000 tons, also a record.

"Reaching the 200,000 ton milestone validates the industry approach to the Japan market," says Haggard. "Since the U.S. share of total pork consumption in Japan is just 12-13 percent, however, there is plenty of opportunity to grow."

Competition has been fierce for Japan's pork import market, especially after the end of Taiwan's dominant supply position in 1997. Although overall pork consumption has been relatively stable over the past decade, self-sufficiency has continued to fall. Japan now is 60% self-sufficient in pork.

USMEF-Tokyo Director Sam Harada says, "Reaching the milestone is an accomplishment; however, we now have to work even harder to maintain our dominant role. Europe's predicament presents an opportunity for us in sectors where the U.S. has not been strong, such as processing, which accounts for 30 percent of total pork usage."

Although the U.S. is a leader in supplying chilled pork to Japan, overall U.S. market share of retail pork sales is still low, says USMEF-Tokyo Director of Market Takemichi Yamashoji. "Japan's retail sector is undergoing great change, and it's a challenge to allocate resources efficiently so as to cover the shifting line up of major players."

Competition is also considerable, Haggard notes, with Canada registering the fastest growth rate in exports to Japan of both chilled and frozen pork. Other fast-growing competitors include Mexico and Australia. "Now is a critical time for solidifying gains and thinking smart about growing in the future," Haggard says.

In 2000, total pork exports grew 12% in volume to more than 566,000 metric tons, while value grew 18% to $1.3 billion. Exports now account for more than 8% of U.S. pork production on a wholesale weight basis.

Source: USMEF press release