Japanese appetite for beef growing
By MICHELE LINCK
HAWARDEN – As Japan’s middle class grows, so does its appetite for beef.
Although, at the cost equivalent of $14 and $15 per pound for some imported beef, the red meat is still an indulgence for the middle class.
According to Steve Rehder, a Sioux County beef producer who traveled to Japan in February on a trade mission, more Japanese are putting red meat at the center of their plate.
But for now, he said, the beef eaten there is still primarily served as several thin strips at the side of the plate. He would like to change that.
Rehder was one of eight Iowa livestock producers on the trade mission under the auspices of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Four were pork producers, three raise beef cattle and one raises chickens. Rehder’s goal was to learn how Iowa beef producers could build their market in Japan
Mark Fisher, of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, arranged the trip.
The Japanese are eating more beef, including their own native, Wagyu beef, which can cost upward to $50 a pound, Rehder said.
It takes its name from the town where the breed is raised. On the sixth day of the trip, the farmers took a train from Tokyo to Osaka, then drove to Wagyu to see the operation.
“The cattle are fed in what looks like a hog shed,” Rehder said. “Their feed is a mix of roughage, hay and the byproducts of beer brewing.
“The Wagyu beef produces a very marbled product.”
The sliced end of a Wagyu roast reveals a narrow, erratic pin-striping of alternating veins of red meat and white fat, different from the lean beef produced in the United States.
“And, when they sell those cattle, it’s one at a time,” Rehder added. “Each one gets a different number so the meat can be tracked.
“For generations the Japanese have eaten a very lean diet – fish and rice, for example. Now that more meat is available to them, they’re getting fatter.”
On a somber note, he said the farming community in Japan barely exists anymore.
“The government gets in the way of things.”
Back in Tokyo for the final day of the tour, the Americans ate dinner at Yoshinoya, a Tokyo restaurant that serves only U.S. beef.
Yoshinoya is no McDonald’s. Its only dish is a beef bowl – small, medium or large – made of beef served on a bed of rice and topped with onions.
The price for beef is sometimes in sync with U.S. prices, but some kinds are more costly in Japan, including imported U.S. beef.
One reason is that the U.S. is competing with Australia for Japanese market share.
The Australian beef tariff is 30 percent, while U.S. producers pay a 38 percent tariff.
Even so, Rehder said he thinks U.S. beef producers should further expand their reach into Japan.
Rehder said that other producers would like to see more beef exported to Japan, too.
“We were in the U.S. Embassy (in Tokyo) and met with a high ranking embassy official,” Rehder said. “He said everyone is going to China.”
However, Rehder said, he prefers dealing with Japan, citing China as an unreliable partner.
“Every once in awhile,” he said, “China will cancel a beef order while the cargo ship delivering it is already half-way there.
“Then (the Chinese) say they will accept the order if the price includes other things, such as dry distiller’s grain,” that is used to feed cattle.
Rehder said that sending that product would put the U.S. ethanol industry in a pinch.
Conversely, he said, he found Japan to be an amazing culture and a great place to learn about the role of beef in a prosperous Asian country.
Rehder said he thinks there’s plenty more export opportunity for U.S. beef to be sold in the wider international marketplace, too.
“Not everybody eats the same thing,” he said. “Egyptians eat our liver. Tongue is $1.50 a pound in the United States. It’s $5 a pound in Japan.”
Worth the trip
A few years ago, Rehder went on a trade mission to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, sponsored by IEDA.
He said he recalled that 40 percent of the workers in Mexico brought home a net income of $10 a day; so the market there for the relatively expensive American beef was not as strong as it could have been.
But American cattlemen still managed to get some business there.
He said that in the 29 years since the IEDA was founded it has sponsored several trade missions to Japan – arguably among the more affluent countries in the world.
“Hopefully, we can get something worked out on the tariff,” Rehder said. “We still have the best tasting beef.”
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