Retailers, restaurants turning to foreign rice


Retailers and restaurant operators are starting to offer foreign-grown rice in the face of a price uptick for domestic produce following last year’s earthquake, tsunami and radiation crisis.

Last month, supermarket chain Seiyu Ltd. launched sales of Chinese rice from Jilin Province at its 149 outlets in the Kanto region and Shizuoka Prefecture.

“Sales are outpacing our initial plan,” said a happy Seiyu official.

At the Seiyu outlet in Tokyo’s Akabane neighborhood, Chinese rice was priced at ¥1,299 for 5 kg, around 30 percent cheaper than Japan’s popular Akitakomachi brand, which carries a price tag of ¥1,850 for a 5-kg bag.

“Cheaper rice is tempting for someone on a pension,” said a 73-year-old man buying a bag of the Chinese crop for the first time. “I’ll buy it again if it tastes fine.”

Seiyu’s move came at a time when Japanese rice prices are some 20 percent higher than last year, when the March 11 disasters triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant that contaminated major rice-producing regions in the northeast.

“Sales of Chinese rice are faring well, especially on weekends,” the Seiyu official said, adding that the company is even getting inquiries from those who don’t live near the stores where the imported product is being sold.

Foreign rice has so far been used to cover shortages of low-end domestic rice.

Seiyu will consider whether to expand the areas where it offers Jilin rice after seeing how sales fare over time, the official said.

Matsuya Foods Co., a major “gyudon” beef-on-rice chain, is offering a mix of Australian and Japanese rice at around 600 outlets in the Tokyo metropolitan area, or some 70 percent of all its locations.

“We haven’t decided for how long we’ll use the Aussie rice,” a Matsuya spokesman said.

Kappa Create Co., which runs the Kappa-Sushi restaurant chain, offered California rice for about a month starting in mid-February on a trial basis at its outlet in Yono, Saitama Prefecture.

Although the origin of the rice was indicated at the outlets, the company received no major complaints from diners, an official said.

At this point the sushi chain has no plans to serve California rice at all of its outlets, the official added.

Meanwhile, Shoichi Ito, a professor at the Kyushu University Graduate School and an agricultural expert well-versed on foreign rice, hails the trend.

“It’s a good thing for various types of foreign rice to be used in Japan because there is high-quality rice from outside Japan as well,” he said.

For foreign rice to become entrenched in the Japanese market, however, “it is important to make sure there are no safety problems, such as contamination with outside materials,” he pointed out.