High food hygiene costs choking export growth

by Mariko Kato

Strict hygiene criteria in importing countries and the high cost food producers have to shoulder to meet such requirements are limiting the export of Japanese food, experts said at a recent symposium set up by the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, or JRO.

“Our biggest concern is that our exports are not being accepted by target countries,” said Yuji Kudo, a deputy general manager at the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, which exports Japanese beef.

Only four factories nationwide match the food management standards set by recipient countries to handle Japanese beef, and it can cost ¥30 million to equip a factory appropriately, Kudo told the March 9 symposium attended by some 700 people.

Export of beef, among the most popular of Japanese foods overseas, is further restrained by import bans imposed since the first case of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was discovered in 2001. Only the United States, Canada and Hong Kong have since lifted the ban, although demand comes from restaurants in Taiwan, Mexico and elsewhere, Kudo said.

Policy restrictions also trouble dealers in other products. According to JRO, only 21 companies that handle processed marine products, including frozen tuna, dried bonito shavings and scallops, are authorized to export to the European Union, as they do not comply with the EU’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system.

For others, the cost of meeting the system’s standards would not offset profits, since many products are only sent in small quantities and have to be shipped by air.

The government agreed that more must be done to coordinate dealers within Japan so ingredients can be exported in larger quantities at lower cost.

“We cannot afford competition among prefectures or companies, because we will lose out overseas, and it is the government’s job to link them up,” said Nobuyuki Kosaka, a deputy director at the farm ministry.

Food export sales have increased sharply in recent years.

In 2007, such sales amounted to ¥434 billion, up 50 percent from 2003. But the figure declined slightly to ¥431 billion in 2008 due to the recession and stronger yen, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

About 70 percent is shipped to Asia, while 20 percent goes to North America. Hong Kong and the U.S. are the leading recipients, with 18 percent each.

The cost and difficulties of importing food products from Japan means that as much as 70 percent of ingredients used at Japanese restaurants abroad are sourced domestically, said Hisami Mitsumori, president of Ootoya Co., a Japanese restaurant chain with branches across Asia.

There are about 25,000 Japanese restaurants around the world, some run by local establishments, although this does not include fast-food eateries such as ramen bars or curry houses, according to JRO.

To increase export loads, Japan must identify and target foreign consumer demands more closely, and popularize its cuisine among the masses, experts said.

“We need to look further than restaurants to supermarkets, and invite people to cook Japanese food at home, using the ingredients in their own ways,” said Hitoshi Tanaka, president of Central Trading Co.

Such diversity is already visible overseas.

“In high-income households in Hong Kong, maids cook with ingredients bought from department stores during the week, and the families only eat out on weekends,” said Kazunari Konno, senior managing director of the Japan Agricultural Corporations Association.

Elsewhere abroad, it is the cuisine itself that needs to be adapted, according to Lawrence Zhan, president of Matsuko, a buffet-style Japanese restaurant chain in Beijing that plays to the Chinese palate and appetite.

“People in Beijing want bigger volume at a reasonable price, and the taste needs to be stronger than Japanese flavoring,” Zhan said, adding his staff are trained in Japanese language and culinary habits, as customers are keen to observe Japanese culture.

Japan must take advantage of the reputation of its cuisine abroad as being safe, healthy and high quality, said agriculture minister Shigeru Ishiba.

“Some say there are about 800 ingredients in Chinese cooking, but there are 1,300 in Japanese cuisine. I think it is Japan’s responsibility to spread this rich variety to the world,” he said.