Spirited away: What does the Japanese beef market have to offer?

ICMSA has welcomed the news that Japan is to open up its market to Irish beef imports.

“The market was closed to us some 15 years ago,” an ICMSA spokesperson confirmed. “Back then it was worth around €15m punts to the Irish economy. Let’s hope that this can now be built on for the future.”

Japan currently imports large amounts of beef, primarily from Oceania and North America, and its consumers are willing to pay a premium for heavily marbled, grain-fed beef. Trade bans resulting from the discovery of BSE in the EU and North America dramatically shifted beef supplies to imported beef from Australia and New Zealand.

According to a recently published report, compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, beef consumption in Japan may increase from current levels, particularly if prices fall or income rises, despite a declining population.

Economic factors, demographic factors, import and domestic policies and regulations, as well as consumer tastes and preferences, will determine the outlook for beef consumption in Japan and the ability of Irish beef to compete in that market. Japan’s domestic beef production relies upon imported feed, primarily from the US, to feed specific breeds energy-intensive rations.

Government support plays an important role in the market structure of the domestic beef industry, which has an impact on imported beef from other countries, including the US.

Significantly, domestic Japanese beef production has not filled the gap left by the restrictions on EU and North American beef imports. High prices for feeder calves and high feed costs, together with a relatively small-scale feedlot industry, prevent Japanese production from increasing. Although strong Government subsidy support and a substantial import tariff continue to bolster the Japanese industry, beef production is unlikely to expand.

In recent years, Japan’s beef cattle industry has intensified its feeding to increase certain beef attributes, such as marbling. Beef products in Japan are highly segmented.

Beef is prepared differently depending not only on the type of cut, but also on whether the beef is wagyu or dairy, domestic or imported, grain-fed or grass-fed. In addition, income, price, consumers’ ages, and preferences can change not only overall beef consumption, but also the type and way in which beef is consumed.

The meat from the Wagyu cattle, that are indigenous to Japan, is known for its quality, and demands a high price. The beef is characterised by its extremely high levels of internal marbling.

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