Can Irish beef be the next watermelon bread in Japan?

Why Japan's beef market may be a tough nut for Irish exporters to crack

Margaret Donnellyin Toyko

Reduced tariffs and increased access to Japan is good news for Irish beef exports, but persuading Japan's 126m people to eat Irish beef may prove difficult.

Japan is home to 125m people and watermelon bread. The country that is credited with coming up with growing square watermelons - because they are easier to store and cut up - then came up with watermelon bread.

Suika Pan as it's known in Japan looks and tastes like watermelon and for Japanese people, with a long-known fondness for all kinds of cute and kitsch, watermelon bread is a winner. It remains to be seen if Irish beef can be a similar hit with Japan's consumers who want innovation, convenience, single portions and health benefits from their food choices.

Watermelon bread looks good on Instagram, is certainly cute can be sold in single servings and could possibly claim some 'healthy' fruit links. How Irish beef could position itself in such a market remains to be seen, and it may have to think beyond a 'clean, green image'. 

Under the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement tariffs on Irish beef will be reduced over the coming years from the current 38.5pc and the Department of Agriculture is currently leading a trade mission to Japan and South Korea to promote Irish exports.

This is good news for beef exporters looking to find and develop new markets for beef exports in light of the looming Brexit threat and with 50pc of Irish beef exports currently going to the UK, exports to countries further afield may prove vital for the sector.

Japan, while a considerable distance away, is in many ways an ideal market for Irish beef. The South East Asia region is home to 600m people and 50pc of the world's middle classes live in Asia and there is not enough meat production in all of South America to feed the demand for beef from South East Asia.

And Japan is key to Asian markets. It is considered by many as the key Asian influencer for culture and food. Tokyo is home to 20m people and it's a population that likes to eat out. Tokyo has 160,000 restaurants, compared to 40,000 in Paris, and Bord Bia's Ciaran Gallagher says Japanese consumers are some of the most exacting in the world and it takes a long time to grow business in Japan.

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According to research by Japanese market research company Sugata, Ireland as a food nation is not a message that has reached Japan. Further, Dave Perry, General Manager with Sugata, said beef is still a 'special occasion' meat that is not eaten at home and beef remains a niche and expensive meat for many Japanese consumers.

Even Japan's world famous Wagyu beef is suffering some 'bad press' as it's high fat marbling is considered by a health-conscious Japanese consumer as unhealthy and consumers are looking to imports as it's cheaper and less fatty. The marbling of Wagyu can be so intense through the meat that not only is it impossible to cut the fat out, but the meat can be up to 25pc fat.

So, beef imports from Europe could be an attractive offering for Japanese consumers.

For Ireland, though it remains a virtually unknown country to the Japanese consumer. Beyond Guinness, there is little recognition of Ireland.

But Dave Perry said this presents Ireland with a unique opportunity to tell it's story about Irish beef. Japanese consumers, he said, could listen to a story about their food and how it is produced and the job now for Irish beef exporters and Bord Bia is to tell that story.

But getting a message to 125m people in a country rich on tradition yet big on 'cute' is not straightforward. Single-serve portions of every food are standard and health benefit claims are almost standard in some food sectors, Irish beef will have to tell a story that encompasses heritage, provenance and healthiness. At the same time, it will have to be packaged conveniently, be small serving sizes and Instagram friendly.

Japan offers a vast consumer market for Irish beef, but telling the story of Irish beef may be a very costly exercise if the Japanese consumer doesn't buy the message.

Online Editors

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