Organic Japanese food hot items in U.K., Europe

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Demand for organic Japanese food has grown “phenomenally” over the last few years as more Europeans opt for healthier diets, according to a major importer who was recently commended by the Japanese government for his efforts.

Christopher Dawson, chairman of Clearspring Ltd., says his products have attracted much interest from supermarkets eager to stock his range of Japanese organic produce, which includes teas, noodles, soups and sauces.

Dawson, the only foreigner to receive this year’s agriculture ministry award in Tokyo for the overseas promotion of Japanese food, said the demand has been buoyed by TV programs in Britain extolling the virtues of traditional Japanese food.

And, as with British food, consumers are increasingly looking for the organically grown option, free from pesticides and other chemicals.

Clearspring has been operating as a wholesaler since 1988, and was bought by Dawson in 1993. It imports products from all over Japan that are then sold in Britain and other European and Middle Eastern countries under the Clearspring brand.

The majority of the company’s produce is organic and the food is made using traditional Japanese methods. All the foods are made without artificial additives, preservatives or colorings.

Since he took the helm in 1993, Dawson said business has “increased fourfold,” with the real growth in organic products. The last 12 months have seen a significant increase in orders and the company supplies two of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains.

Clearspring is the biggest importer of Japanese organic food into Britain.

“Demand is huge and particularly so of late. Supermarkets have been coming to us, which is very unusual. We have waited a long time for this,” Dawson said in an interview.

“There has been a lot of press about the benefits of green tea, the ‘bento’ (boxed lunch) has become popular and you can get miso soup at restaurants.”

Clearspring, which is based in west London, sells organic green teas, miso, rice cakes and crackers, vinegars, soy sauces, sake, as well as “soba” and “udon” noodles. The firm even sells “umeboshi” pickled plums.

Dawson says the organic miso soup, rice cakes and wheat-free “tamari” soy sauce are big sellers. Other less well-known products, including umeboshi, are growing in popularity.

Before buying Clearspring, Dawson spent 18 years living in Japan, where he worked for an export company.

While working in Japan, he realized the importance of sourcing organically grown produce for the overseas market. He worked with the producers to get their food certified as organic.

He said, “Because the food is from overseas, a lot of consumers (in Britain, for example) like to know that it is organic because they don’t know a lot about the food-making process in Japan and want to be careful.”

The organic certification process is still very much in its early stages in Japan, compared with the United States and Europe. In fiscal 2004, organic produce represented only 0.16 percent of total farm output.

The Japanese government has tried to boost the production of organic foods by offering more support and there are bodies that certify produce as organic.

However, the Japanese organic standards are not as stringent as those of the European Union, Dawson said.

Therefore, each type of organic food from Japan has to be separately inspected by Ecocert, the EU body, in order to get its organic certificate before it can be imported into Britain.

Dawson said it is very costly to go through this process for each product and ideally he would like to see Tokyo raise the Japanese organic standards so they can be European Union-compliant.

“It causes a lot of work for us, and at the end of the day we are working hard to promote Japan’s food,” Dawson said.

Despite this, he said he believes there is much to be said about the value of Japanese food and is optimistic about its future in the West. “It tastes delicious and has so many applications for nutrition, health and ecology,” because it is considered to be very energy efficient to prepare, he said.