Irish beef in Japan: Where are there opportunities?

Opportunities identified for Irish beef in the Japanese market were discussed with industry representatives by local market experts on the ground in Tokyo, Japan.

Irish grass-fed beef could have a key market opening in Japan, according to one such expert.

Dr. Saito, a local expert in Japanese trends towards grass-fed beef and health, gave an address to Irish meat and dairy industry representatives at an event organised by Bord Bia and the Irish Government in the Irish Embassy in Tokyo this morning, Monday, June 10.

Speaking to the gathered attendees, Dr. Saito outlined that the Ministry of Health in Japan is looking at the problem of an ageing population not consuming enough protein, which can lead to muscle loss.

He claimed that local symptoms of insufficient protein intake include the swelling of legs and a yellowing of the skin around hands and ankles.

A promoter of a meat-based diet, similar to ketogenic diets, Dr. Saito in recent years turned his attention to grass-fed beef rather than the traditional Wagyu meat in Japan.

He noted that if you’re eating meat with a high fat content like Wagyu – the traditional local fare – it can be difficult to eat much meat, with the leaner grass-fed beef a better option for followers of meat-based diets.

Seeing an opening in the market in 2011, due to no one selling grass-fed beef in Japan at the time, Saito “moved from being a doctor to opening a butcher’s shop selling grass-fed beef”.

The expert also highlighted a growing Japanese interest in omega 3 intake; Quoting Teagasc data he received during a trip to Ireland last month, he noted that omega 3 levels are higher in grass-fed beef.

Dr. Saito concluded by announcing that he was looking forward to working with the Irish industry to promote grass-fed beef in particular in japan.

Consumer trends

Meanwhile, on the broader consumer trends present in the Asian country – which has the world’s fourth-largest economy – Chisa Ogura, managing director or Meros Consulting, outlined the changing demographics bringing about evolving demands from the Japanese public.

Ogura highlighted two changes in particular: more women working outside the home; and an increase in urbanisation, noting that 50% or more of the population are now living in just three major areas: Nagoya; Osaka and especially the Tokyo area.

She also highlighted the small size of typical Japanese kitchens, often with low-capacity ovens, making it harder to cook roast beef.

The consultant noted that there has been a move away from seafood, a staple in traditional Japanese cuisine, more towards meat. In addition, dairy consumption is changing, with liquid milk demand dropping but consumption of cheese and yogurt rising rapidly instead.

Echoing Dr. Saito, Ogura noted that there is “an interesting kind of ketogenic diet – normally more like a ‘lower carb’, eating half a bowl of rice rather than no bowl” trend among the Japanese public, seeking high-protein low-carbohydrate meals.

The consultant gave two examples of this, namely “salad chicken”, individually packed chicken chicken breasts with salad, and ready-to-drink whey protein drinks.

“Definitely there is interest in those products. And another example is Ikanari Steak, which is a restaurant chain specialising in steak but providing their steak in more a fast-food style, they can go and order steak and eat quickly – like 10 minutes or something – and go back to work,” she said.

In terms of where opportunities may lie for Irish produce, Ogura noted that imports are mainly absorbed into the food service sector for restaurants etc.

She explained that there is a preference for more fatty beef cooked in Korean barbecues, Gyudon, Shabu Shabu, hamburger steak and cut-up steaks traditionally.

In terms of competition in the market, Ogura highlighted that domestic beef commanded a far higher price than imported meat, with: Wagyu; F1 (Wagyu-Holstein cross); and domestic Holstein beef all receiving a higher price than imported grain-fed US or grass-fed Australian alternatives.

The consultant also highlighted that relaxed tariffs agreed in the Japanese EU Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA) will see the biggest impact on higher-priced goods such as rib-roast.

However, she noted that demand for beef as a high-end product is relatively inelastic. She said that the 10% tariff drop (38.5% down to 27.5%) will at most increase consumption by 5%.

Nonetheless, there is a window of time for Irish suppliers to take advantage of the price drops before competitors such as the US negotiate similar agreements, Ogura said.