Ireland serves up sustainability and high safety standards to satisfy Japan’s appetite

Robert McNamara joins the Irish agri-food trade mission to Japan and finds Irish beef is cooking up a storm in Tokyo, where discerning customers are insisting on high-quality food and knowledge about its provenance.

Ireland serves up sustainability and high safety standards to satisfy Japan’s appetite

Robert McNamara joins the Irish agri-food trade mission to Japan and finds Irish beef is cooking up a storm in Tokyo, where discerning customers are insisting on high-quality food and knowledge about its provenance.

We’re a nation of under 5m people, but our food producers are yielding enough crop, meat, dairy and seafood to feed almost 30m people every year.

While our neighbours in the UK are our biggest export partner, uncertainty lies ahead for that market as Brexit looms large.

The political chaos in Britain has underlined the need for new, bigger, more lucrative markets. The markets we seek are those rapidly developing in the Far East where swathes of emerging middle classes in the Asia Pacific are seeking alternative foodstuffs as their diets begin to vary from tradition.

They are an increasingly discerning type of consumer demanding better standards for their food, as well as taste and quality.

They want to know how their food was produced with intensive detail, right down to how animal meat was reared and what it was fed. They want healthy food, developed in a sustainable manner that adheres to the best practices and scientific techniques.

Ireland’s track record in all of these positions it perfectly to make its case to the Asia Pacific market as a food exporter par excellence.

We already export to over 180 countries with agri-food exports amounting to €12.1bn last year. The Government and its various agencies are pushing to increase this to €19bn by 2025. It’s an ambitious target but achievable when you look at the strength of the products emanating from Ireland.

For example, most countries claim they are rearing grass fed cows, but only Ireland’s climate can allow animals to be grazing over 300 days a year. Communicating that to consumers is a challenge Ireland needs to take on and succeed in getting across.

Japan and South Korea have been identified as two of the top five global priority markets for Irish meat and dairy by Bord Bia.

Japan, in itself, is a vast market with 127m people. The signing of the historic Japan EU Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA) last year has removed tariffs on certain EU products amounting to €1bn a year.

Import duties will be down to 9% by 2033 and, already, approximately €115m of worth Irish food and drink exports were sent to Japan last year. This figure is set to skyrocket.

JEEPA has prompted the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Bord Bia and a range of Irish meat and dairy producers to this month undertake a second trade mission Japan since 2017.

The objectives of the latest mission were to copperfasten the gains made infiltrating the Japanese market for meat and dairy and to formally open the new Bord Bia office at the Tokyo Irish embassy which will be headed up by market specialist and fluent Japanese speaker Joe Moore.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed led the mission and secured a historic trade deal that will allow Irish sheepmeat to be imported into Japan for the first time ever.

Also announced on the trip by Bord Bia CEO Tara McCarthy was a €3.9m contract won by the Irish food board to promote EU pork and beef in South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines under the EU led ‘Enjoy it’s From Europe’ marketing campaign.

Irish Ambassador to Japan Paul Kavanagh with Bord Bia CEO Tara McCarthy in Tokyo. He believes Ireland is getting to grips with the Japanese market at the right time and will make greater gains as the Japanese recoil from the uncertainty of Brexit in the UK.
Irish Ambassador to Japan Paul Kavanagh with Bord Bia CEO Tara McCarthy in Tokyo. He believes Ireland is getting to grips with the Japanese market at the right time and will make greater gains as the Japanese recoil from the uncertainty of Brexit in the UK.

However, Bord Bia was not just talking about the products from Ireland and the EU in the Asia Pacific, they were showing importers their best hand by bringing the people most in the know, Irish food producers, along to do it face to face.

This allowed Irish businesses to meet and greet their new business partners and build relationships which will see their products hit supermarket shelves in Asia.

Among the delegation from the dairy sector were Glanbia Ireland, Carbery, Dairygold, Dansko, Tipperary Co-op, Ornua and Kerry foods.

The Irish meat industry was represented by ABP, Agrakepak, Staunton Foods, QK Meats, Foyle Food Group, John Stone, Dawn Meats and Liffey Meats.

The reason these face-to-face meetings are so important is so Irish producers can show potential business partners the cutting-edge farming, agri-food techniques and science that the Asia Pacfic market craves.

This is what Bord Bia call ‘Origin Green’ — the world’s first nation state food sustainability programme which emphasises the assurances Ireland can give around its safe produce.

Sustainability and safety of Irish food is the message Bord Bia is looking to drive into the Asian psyche.

On the trade mission deputy chief veterinary officer for the Department of Agriculture, Paula Barry Walsh, spoke at length to Japanese importers and officials about Ireland’s advanced sustainability methods, its freedom from exotic diseases and the standards, practices and legislation requirements which are over and above market expectations. This is music to Japanese ears, in particular, a nation that values certainty in business above all else.

She stressed Ireland’s international reputation in animal identification and traceability, feed controls, veterinary medicine control and processing facility oversight. This transparency is leading to increasing Japanese confidence in Irish food production.

On the trade mission, Irish beef and pig meat exporters were shown the standards that they must meet for Irish produce to be deemed acceptable at Tokyo’s respected Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market in Shinagawa.

Pigs and cows from all over Japan are slaughtered in this downtown Tokyo facility and the carcasses are bought and sold in an open market.

Japanese Wagyu meat is graded by stringent criteria based on yield and meat quality. The Japanese are clear that their checks and balances must be met and it appears Irish produce is getting their stamp of approval.

Changing needs of consumers

The push toward grass fed beef, rather than traditional Wagyu Japanese breed beef, started in 2011 after the Japanese food supply source was compromised by an earthquake and tsunami off the Pacific coast of Tohoku that had a magnitude 9.0 on the richter scale.

This led experts to think about food production in other countries and increasing imports because Japan’s own sources were shown to be vulnerable to contamination by an act of God.

Coupled with a need for the nation to look at higher protein diets to offset health complications in older people a focus on low in fat, low in calorie meals with a strong source of iron and protein, new recommendations on diets have been developed for the Japanese.

A long-held suspicion of meat as being unhealthy led to generations of Japanese that did not consume enough protein - causing muscle loss in older age.

In order to consume 60g of protein, roughly 300g of meat must be consumed daily to battle the yellowing of skin on the arms and hands and the risk of strokes. Indeed, instances of strokes have risen over the last few decades among the Japanese population. Put simply, the Japanese need beef imports to supplement their diets.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed speaking at the Irish Agri-Food Trade Mission to Japan in Tokyo.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed speaking at the Irish Agri-Food Trade Mission to Japan in Tokyo.

The charge for imported beef is being led by Dr Saito, a beef expert who now runs his own butcher shop that is frequented by celebrities, keen to align themselves to a protein led diet - similiar to the Ketogenic diet.

This change in eating patterns also has superficial benefits. An increase in meat intake and a reduction on carbohydrates, according to Dr Saito, allows for weight loss which many Japanese find desirable.

This high-fat, low carbohydrate diet has taken hold over a large portion of the population and, while not everyone can aim to eat top level beef such as that supplied to the Hilton Tokyo, by high-end Irish producers John Stone, the emphasis is very much on Irish grass fed animals.

Having promoted New Zealand grass fed beef in Japan, Dr Saito has now turned his attention to Irish products and recently visited the country where he was impressed by the back-up of science in grass fed techniques on Irish farms.

Irish approaches to meat-based dishes and expectations around them are quite defined and it can be hard for the ordinary Irish person to have a tangible understanding of how Irish beef can be adapted and marketed toward consumers on the Asia Pacific who have very different ideas on how food should be cooked and consumed.

The Negishi beef tongue restaurant is part of a developing shift toward beef consumption as part of a low carb diet and has 39 restaurants in Tokyo alone.

Irish grass fed beef is highlighted prominently on the restaurant’s menu. Cow tongue is not something Irish people may consider as palatable but the texture and taste is going down well in Japan.

Irish beef tongue is served among a trio of meats, alongside other dishes such as oxtail soup, salad and rice. It’s thinly sliced and lean and a light quick meal with lots of protein and grilled right in front of customers for under 2400 Yen (€20).

Irish beef tongue is among a range of meats that are designed for the Japanese market that are changing trends and attitudes to consuming meat.

At the higher end of the scale, Longford’s John Stone Meats supplies premium Irish beef to five restaurants in Tokyo. The brand and product is displayed prominently in a case in the Hilton Tokyo restaurant and, again, “grass fed” is the message that is being delivered to the consumer.

The fact that it’s Irish and produced sustainably is what sells the product, while the steak and how it’s cooked is an experience in itself.

Instead of placing the 1kg Tomahawk beef piece directly on the grill, chef de cuisine at the Hilton, Niko Martinez places the meat on a plank of Japanese cherry wood which is soaked in sugar, water and salt and burned.

This allows the steak to be cooked but because the heat is not directly on the meat, it doesn’t shrink and retains is succulence and tenderness. It’s recommended to be consumed medium rare and the unique way of cooking allows a tender inner and crispy outer.

It appeals to the Japanese due to the low carb content of the food and all the emphasis of the meal is on the cut of meat itself.

The 24,500 Yen (€200) price tag might not be accessible to everyone but it’s a new take on Irish food being marketed and cooked specifically for the Japanese market.

Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy is sure that the message about Irish meat and dairy produce is getting across to the consumer.

“All this is happening at a very opportune time, given the lifting reduction of tariffs between Japan and the European Union across meat and dairy.

“However, we in Ireland also understand that, for Japanese consumers, there is more to choosing food than a competitive price. They care passionately about where their food comes from and who produces it, which is why we believe that the more they understand our industry, the more assured they will be that Ireland’s high quality food and drink has a place on their tables.

Agriculture in Ireland has deep roots in our culture and is undertaken with a serious commitment to sustainability. Our family-run farms are guided by the belief that the next generation should have access to the resources that the previous generation has been gifted with.

“Since 2012, Bord Bia has operated Origin Green, the first national sustainability programme in the world. It commits our entire industry, from our farmers to our processors, to taking actions that reduce their carbon footprint and improve their environmental performance.

“It provides a robust framework through which our entire industry is working together and making real progress in safeguarding our environment. It is our commitment to delivering a sustainable future for our farmers, our communities and our planet,” Ms McCarthy said.

With Bord Bia delivering the sustainability message to the Asian markets, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed sees massive potential for export growth and believes trade missions will become more common to make sure Irish produce is not forgotten among the big players in supplying food exports to the Asia Pacific region - such as the US and Australia.

“We recognise the significance of the market here,” says Minister Creed.

Irish Ambassador to Japan, Paul Kavanagh, will oversee the biggest statement of intent by Ireland on foreign shores over the next few years as the Department of Foreign Affairs spends an estimated €23m on building a multi-purpose embassy in Japan to serve Irish interests in the region.

He believes Ireland is getting to grips with the Japanese market at the right time and will make greater gains as the Japanese recoil from the uncertainty of Brexit in the UK. Ireland’s stable relationship with the EU is an attractive proposition for Japan in particular.

“We have seen a significant step forward recently with the establishment of the Bord Bia office in Tokyo. Ireland and her stellar food and agri-business sector are set to reap major rewards from promotion here in Japan well into the medium term,” Ambassador Kavanagh says.

“Japan is a rules based and highly promising market. Ireland is firmly committed to its membership of the EU, its single market of 500m people and to the Eurozone single currency area. Ireland is stable, secure and predictable. These are highly desirable attributes for any Japanese business partner.

“Ireland’s future is European and recent polls show 93% of people support our continued membership of the union. Whatever is happening elsewhere, Ireland is solid, stable and predictable. For Japanese ears, that’s all positive. In Japan, there’s no such thing as a good surprise.

“All surprises in Japan are negative as such and carry negative attributes such as instability and unpredictability. Brexit for Japanese, for businesses and the government carry precisely these negative attributes. The Japanese don’t like Brexit and they don’t mind saying it.”

He said Ireland’s economic relationship with Japan will continue to deepen and expand in the years to come because of JEEPA.

In 2017, two way trade between Ireland and Japan stood above €11bn. In this total Ireland had a surplus of €6bn - by far our largest surplus with any region in the Asia Pacific region. Japan also has by far, the largest stock of FDI investment in Ireland from across that region.

“We are currently developing here in Tokyo, a new showcase state of the art, Ireland House. It will be a major gleaming platform for projecting Ireland and our many world class offerings in Japan in a much stronger and more effective manner.

“Ireland House, in Yotsuyo, will be the first state of the art platform to be rolled out by the Government anywhere in the world in this century. It will comprise the embassy and official agencies, a residence, a high quality base for each of our growing employment agencies as well as a performance base and exhibition area, conference and seminar facilities. Ireland House Tokyo represents a major capital investment,” Ambassador Kavanagh adds.

Irish investment and interest in Japan is growing and vice versa. Just a small portion of the food market could be quite lucrative for the Irish agri-food sector.

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