Pics: ‘Japan is slowly realising our beef is not all about tongues and offal’

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) is urging the Japanese Government to remove the 30-month age limit on beef imports to the country, as consumer interest in Irish style cuts is slowly emerging.

Speaking to AgriLand during this week’s agri-food trade mission to Japan and South Korea, Cormac Healy, senior director of MII, said the new EU-Japan trade deal will be a “game-changer” for Ireland.

Under the landmark deal – which involved four years of grueling negotiations – European beef producers will now be able to send 50,000t of meat to Japan every year; while tariffs on beef will also be cut from 38.5% to 9% over a 15-year period.

Although the deal is not expected to be operational until 2019, Healy says lifting the 30-month age limit would be a “huge opportunity” for Irish beef.

Earlier this week, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, raised the issue of the restriction with Japan’s State Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Yousuke Isozaki.

“The trade deal means we’re immediately coming down to a level playing field with others that have a deal, like Australia.

“Trading terms are becoming more favorable; and it takes time to build trade but the fact is – down the road, even if it’s 2019 – we’re improving from a trade and tariff perspective.

Increasing the access on beef in terms of the age limits is necessary. The kind of export certificate that we want in any international market is an open market; similar to the way we trade in Europe.

“The biggest problem we have is that if you have a range of third country markets, with different conditions tied in – then you are in a position where you nearly have to kill different animals to suit different markets. That makes life more difficult and more complicated.

“In Japan there is an import demand; and there is a level of affluence here that will support volume increase. It should increase in the years ahead. Now all we need is the removal of the 30-month age limit on beef imports,” he said.

Consumer trends and insights

Healy is also enthused by the latest consumer trend insights in Japan, suggesting that consumers are slowly opting for less fatty meats – such as Japanese famously marbled Wagyu beef – for health reasons.

This has been supported by a gradually growing interest in grass-fed beef.

“Wagyu has dominated. Its very high marbling means it has a huge fat content level and ours doesn’t have and obviously, picking up from the consumer trends, maybe they want something a little leaner. That is not changing overnight; but it points to a trend that they are looking at more favourably,” he said.

Over the last decade, Irish exports to Japan have been dominated by meat exports with almost 40% of exports being meat – particularly pig meat and Irish beefs offals such as tongues – considered a delicacy in Japan.

Minister Creed has also been pushing hard for market access for sheep meat in recent days. Lamb is traditionally not a popular meat with Japanese consumers.

“The offal and the tongue works at the moment; but, that doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to see how the market will fair out for different cuts. There probably will be cuts from the four quarter or the flank.

“It’s also about moving on and trying to get lamb access, we have pig meat and it’s going well here. There is a small level of consumption of lamb here that we don’t have access to right now, there is nothing. If we get access then we have the potential of another sale or another customer,” concluded Healy.