U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) team members from Japan and the United States recently hosted five U.S. pork industry leaders, providing an inside look at how meat industry professionals and consumers in Japan view U.S. pork.

During the first week of April, leading Japanese importers, retailers, consumer bloggers, U.S. processors and U.S. government representatives met with National Pork Board members, including Tim Bierman, president, Conley Nelson (Iowa), Henry Moore (North Carolina), former Pork Board President and current USMEF Vice Chair Danita Rodibaugh, and National Pork Board CEO Chris Novak,.

The benefits of the visit were mutually beneficial. While the U.S. pork industry team was afforded a unique chance to see how Pork Checkoff dollars are invested in some of USMEF’s international marketing programs, our international partners value the opportunity to meet with U.S. producers and leaders – the people behind the products they buy, sell and enjoy.

Food safety is the highest priority for Japanese consumers. Problems with tainted imported food products in recent years – mainly from neighboring China – have added sensitivity to the issue. This has led to a rise in the number of “story” food products offered, which feature photos of the producer on the package. The assumption is – if consumers “know” the producer, they will have more confidence in the product. This desire to know where their food comes from enhances the value of a visit by a U.S. team that included four active pork producers.

A session with 30 power bloggers exposed the U.S. producers to a broader audience. These ladies have Internet blog sites that reach from 5,000 to 70,000 visitors daily.

Typically, the USMEF-Tokyo team provides bloggers with ideas for new recipes and new cuts of U.S. red meat, but, on this occasion the bloggers had the unique opportunity to interact with U.S. producers and gain a better understanding of the care they take with their pork products. Meeting these producers gave the bloggers – and ultimately their readers – a personal connection with the U.S. side of the food chain and added confidence in the safety of U.S. pork. “They understand that if Conley Nelson, Henry Moore, Tim Bierman and Danita Rodibaugh raise this pork on their farms and feed it to their own families, then it must be good for the bloggers’ and their readers’ families, too,” explains a USMEF team member.

Supporting the efforts of these bloggers has been beneficial for USMEF and the U.S. pork industry. In a typical day, 3,000 Japanese consumers visit the USMEF Web site to download recipes, read nutritional information or learn where they can buy U.S. red meat in Japan. But when one or more bloggers publicizes recipes using U.S. meat, visits to the USMEF Web site typically exceed 10,000/day.

An event that drew considerable blogger attention was a pork recipe contest conducted by chefs from more than a dozen different restaurants in the 5-star Hotel Okura in Tokyo. The visiting pork team participated in a ceremony and tasting that highlighted the winning pork recipes. And, those recipes are being added to the menus of the restaurants served by the winning chefs.

The U.S. pork leaders also saw U.S. pork on display in major Japanese retail stores, including Aeon, Japan’s second-largest retailer that operates 1,165 supermarkets with sales of $20 billion. They also visited Ito Yokado supermarkets ($15 billion in sales) and the 7-Eleven convenience store chain that proudly displays sliced ham and sausage products with the U.S. pork logo.

Japan has emerged as a key market for U.S. pork exports in recent years. Last year alone, Japan imported nearly 929 million pounds of U.S. pork valued at more than $1.5 billion. “Even though the U.S. has earned 46% of the Japanese imported pork market, including about 72% of the prized chilled pork market, we cannot take that business for granted,” Bierman notes.

About 20 nations have a presence in the Japanese pork market and many of them, including Canada, Mexico, Denmark and Chile, are investing heavily to capture market share from the United States. Adding complexity to the mix, an oversupply of Japanese domestic pork has driven prices down in recent months.

The challenge to keep the United States No. 1 among imported pork in the hearts and minds of Japanese consumers was also the motivation for a half-day seminar that USMEF developed for more than 300 Japanese meat buyers. The seminar was followed by a tasting session where dozens of creative U.S. pork recipes were demonstrated for attendees. The centerpiece of the event was U.S. pork back ribs – a new product to the market since the Japanese method of carcass preparation incorporates the ribs into other cuts.

Fittingly, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association sponsored the seminar to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Iowa Hog Lift” to Yamanashi – a humanitarian effort by Iowa farmers to help the people of the Japanese prefecture of Yamanashi recover from a pair of typhoons that devastated their communities and their swine herds. Iowans airlifted 35 hogs and 1,500 tons of corn to the people of Yamanashi to help them rebuild their pork industry. This act of kindness has fostered a close and lasting relationship between the two peoples.

Meetings with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Agricultural Minister-Counselor for Japan Geoffrey Wiggin bookended the visit, demonstrating the commitment that the USDA has for supporting U.S. agricultural exports to Japan and around the world.

Philip Seng, president & CEO
U.S. Meat Export Federation