With another year of significant export growth looking likely — against the odds, it must be said — our emboldened food industry has taken on a very ambitious target: namely, expanding on our 1% foodhold in the $51 billion (€44bn) Japanese food and drink import market, and on our bridgehead of about 5% in the $22 billion (€19bn) South Korea market.
Representatives from about 25 Irish companies were led by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, and Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy this week on the trade mission to the Far East.
The Irish group has been well received at events hosted by leaders in the Japanese food and drinks industries, and the group will go on to the Republic of Korea today.
Just how ambitious a project this trade mission is was not underestimated by the team, with Anne Barrington, Ireland’s Ambassador in Japan, saying that we are pushing an open door, but the profile of Ireland in Japan is generally low.
Minister Creed admitted it is a long term project, but said we want to create a vision and identity of Ireland as the Food Island, and if you can achieve that objective in Japan, you are most of the way to capturing the rest of the Asian food market, which looks up to Japan as its trendsetter.
But the omens are quite promising — with our sales to Japan totalling €56 million in 2016, having jumped 45% in one year. Almost 40% is meat, mostly pigmeat and beef offals such as tongue. Dairy is standing €18 million, and seafood has risen significantly in the past ten years, to account for 16% of Ireland’s today food and drink in Japan, and worth €16 million, dominated by Mackerel exports.
Indeed, Ambassador Barrington said that seafood in showing the way in getting on the shelves in Japanese stores, building on a reputation for quality and sustainability.
Our €41m trade to Korea has expanded four-fold since 2010, with seafood again the star, at 40% of value of our shipments, and pigmeat important also.
Tara McCarthy of Bord Bia also said the mission is a long term project, starting with this week’s “full immersion” of Bord Bia’s food and drink client, following Bord Bia’s work to-date which highlighted the need for a tailored approach to these markets.
Bord Bia chairman Michael Carey said that this week’s trip is a learning journey, and Minister Creed warned that Japanese buyers are meticulous about their standards, and punish those who do not meet them.
But one of our reasons for our food industry turning to these faraway shores is also one of our selling points.
Minister Creed referred to Ireland’s 40% dependence on the UK market for food and drink exports, ahead of the Brexit threat, but at the same time he instructed company representatives on the trade mission to stress that, regardless of how Brexit turns out, we “cannot over-emphasise” in our dealings with Japan and Korea that Ireland remains fully committed to the EU, and thus offers itself as the only English-speaking country in the EU after Brexit goes ahead.
The time is also opportune for this week’s trade mission, so that Irish exporters are ready to take advantage when the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement kicks in in 2019.
This free trade deal will give EU exporters easier access to the Japanese market.
Japan will scrap tariffs on 90% of European Union exports in this deal.
Progress is hoped for this week in developing positive relationships with Japanese and South Korean buyers, regulators and political counterparts; negotiations to gain beef access to the market in South Korea; to build on our beef trade to Japan, rated the world’s third biggest beef importer; and negotiation to open the sheep meat market in Japan for Ireland.
The prize at stake is bigger even than the food industry, with Ambassador Barrington saying that Ireland becoming an established food and drink name in Japan will also help our tourism, and our foreign direct investment and jobs drives.