U.S. beef exports to Japan experienced a big jump in 2010 from the previous year, but returning that market to pre-BSE levels nearly a decade ago remains a challenge.
The U.S. Meat Export Federation office and the Agriculture Trade Office of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo work together, along with commodity organizations in the United States that fund MEF, to increase market access for U.S. beef and pork in Japan.
In July, Steve Shnitzler, director of the embassy's Agriculture Trade Office, described to a half-dozen Nebraskans some of the positive results from ongoing beef promotions in Japan and also some of the roadblocks to the expansion of beef sales there. Schnitzler's office cooperates with MEF on food shows and food fairs and demonstrations in supermarkets.
"The Japanese government requires U.S. beef be harvested from animals 20 months of age or younger. We continually engage the Japanese government in negotiations to push back the 20-month restriction, but it is difficult for the government at this time," Shnitzler said, referring particularly to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. "We backed off our push at that time."
However, Shnitzler said the push will continue. "It is about time," that Japan lifts the restriction.
"A lot of it (resistance) is now political," according to Shnitzler. "The Japanese government in the past half-dozen or so years has had five or six prime ministers in that time. The government here is very fractured and weak. There is a lot of fear here to make decision."
Yet, Japanese consumers value the taste of U.S. beef, and MEF-sponsored beef promotions in the Tokyo restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores have been successful in helping make inroads, said Takemichi Yamashoji, MEF senior marketing director in Tokyo.
Steve Wixom, agricultural attaché in the ATO, said Japan currently is the fourth largest customer for U.S. beef and second largest for U.S. pork. Yet, with the government's BSE concerns and other factors, U.S. beef exports to Japan are only slightly more than one-third of what they were "pre-BSE."
Initially, after the 2003 BSE incident in the U.S., according to Wixom, consumers expressed concerns about the beef safety issues. But Wixon said that surveys of consumers today show beef safety is only sixth or seventh on their list of concerns. Price, taste and judgment of the particular food outlet are higher priorities.
"The Japanese government failed to adequately communicate the issues to the public, leaving unnecessarily a fear with the consumers. The government painted itself into a corner," said Shnitzler.