After a slow start in 2010, U.S. pork exports to Japan have recovered remarkably well in recent weeks. In fact, the mid-year totals just released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) show exports pulling ahead of the pace set in both 2008 and 2009. Japan set an all-time, single-market record for imports of U.S. pork $1.545 billion in 2008. The market performed almost as well the following year, totaling $1.54 billion.

In terms of value, no other foreign market has ever imported even half as much U.S. pork. The closest was Mexico in 2009, at $762.3 million – easily an all-time record for any market except Japan. Therefore, while the global destinations for U.S. pork are quite diverse and exports are performing well across the world, there is no denying the importance of Japan as a high-value market that yields magnificent returns for U.S. pork producers.

For these reasons, an early-2010 slump in pork exports to Japan raised some significant concerns in the industry. January’s export value was more than 25% below the year-ago level. By the end of the first quarter, export value still trailed the 2009 pace by 13%. But April and May were solidly in the “plus” column, exceeding year-ago values by 8% and 15%, respectively. June export value was an all-time monthly record of $162.88 million, surpassing the June 2009 total by 44%.

This turnaround is related in large part to Japan’s domestic supplies. Pork inventories were running quite high early in the year, but the spike in production that created this situation did not appear to be sustainable. This became even more evident when Japan suffered a major foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, which has reduced its production levels by about 2%.

As the leading foreign supplier of pork to Japan, the United States is well-positioned to capitalize when Japan’s need for imported pork increases. But this is not a situation the United States can afford to take for granted. In fact, even though the United States holds about 45% market share for all of Japan’s imported pork and 72.5% of the high-value, chilled market, these market shares have actually declined about 2% since last year.

Because of the outstanding return it delivers, Japan is a fiercely competitive market and the No. 1 target for almost every pork-exporting nation. So, maintaining and growing U.S. market share in Japan always requires aggressive, innovative marketing that effectively differentiates U.S. pork from its competitors and keeps it top-of-mind in Japan’s foodservice, retail and processing sectors.

For example, USMEF recently partnered with Aeon, Japan’s largest retailer, on a two-week promotion of a variety of U.S. pork cuts that combined sales incentives, training for product sampling demonstrators, and collaboration with a seasoning manufacturer. The result was a significant boost in U.S. pork sales.

Aeon involved 1,600 outlets from its national and regional supermarket chains to promote a selection of pork cuts: loin, tenderloin, CT (cellar trimmed) butt, belly, jowl meat, spare rib and back rib. USMEF’s involvement in the promotion was supported by Pork Checkoff, USDA Market Access Program (MAP) funds and national and state soybean organizations. The promotion was projected to sell 1.1 million pounds of U.S. pork, a 5% increase over the same period last year. Instead, the promotion increased sales 9% — nearly 40,000 lb. higher than the targeted level.

Pork Ribs Catch On
Among the sales leaders were back ribs, which have gained significant traction as a new product in Japan. Aeon has sold more than 50,000 lb. of back ribs this year compared to about 2,200 lb. in 2009. The growing popularity of pork ribs in Japan recently prompted Ebara, a Japan-based seasoning manufacturer, to invest more than $3 million in television advertising and $150,000 in point-of-sale materials to demonstrate how well-suited its “Yakiniku Golden Sauce” is for pork ribs. USMEF worked with Ebara on the development of the television commercials, which show young Japanese consumers cooking and enjoying U.S. pork back ribs on the grill.

USMEF and Ebara took the promotion one step further, developing special retail point-of-sale recipe cards featuring the U.S. pork logo. Ebara and USMEF also met with major national and regional retailers to interest them in the promotion. About 1,300 outlets signed on for the two-month promotion.

With this major infusion of third-party support, USMEF projects that the summer barbecue promotion with Ebara will help sell an additional 882,000 lb. of U.S. back ribs and spare ribs. These efforts serve as another example of the bold, innovative marketing that helps keep U.S. pork ahead of the competition and keeps Japan atop the list of foreign destinations for U.S. pork.

Jim Herlihy, e-mail: jherlihy@usmef.org,
U.S. Meat Export Federation (www.USMEF.org).