Rehder: Japan acquiring taste for beef
By MICHELE LINCK
HAWARDEN – As Japan’s middle class grows more prosperous, so does its appetite for beef.
Although, at the cost equivalent of $14 or $15 per pound for some imported beef, the red meat is still an occasional indulgence for the middle class.
According to Steve Rehder, a Sioux County beef producer who recently traveled to Japan 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 seven Iowa livestock producers who traveled to Japan in February under the auspices of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Four were pork producers and three raise beef cattle.
Mark Fisher, head of the Iowa Economic Development Agency,arranged and led the group’s week-long trip.
Rehder said his goal was to learn how Iowa beef producers could build their market in Japan.
The Japanese are eating more beef, including their own native, Wagyu beef, which can cost up to $50 a pound. 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 the roast shows a narrow, erratic pin-striping of alternating veins of red meat and white fat, very different from the lean beef produced in the United States.
“And, when they sell those cattle, it’s one at a time,” Rehder said. “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 serves the beef exlusively n a dish called 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, Rehder said. But some kinds of beef are more costly in Japan, including imported U.S. beef.
One reason is that the U.S. is competing with Australia. The Australian beef tariff is 30 percent, while the U.S. producers pay a 38 percent.
Even so, Rehder said he thinks U.S. beef producers should further expand their reach into Japan.
“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.”
Rehder said other U.S. producers would like to see more beef exported to Japan, too.
American beef is being sold into China, through outside brokers, he said. “It is not the most reliable trade partner.”
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 in the broader international marketplace.
“Not everybody eats the same thing,” he said. For example, “Egyptians eat our liver. Tongue is $1.50 a pound in the United States. It’s $5 a pound in Japan”
Trips worth taking
Rehder said he attened a trade mission to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador a few years ago sponsored by the IEDA.
He recalled that 40 percent of the workers in Mexico, for example, 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 the 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.
Now those Iowa producers who saw opportunity there anew at least have a work-booted foot in the door there.
“Hopefully we can get something worked out on the tariff,” Rehder said. “We still have the best tasting beef.”
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