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Domestic beef purchases are set to climb this year as growing demand for affordable meat counters the first rise in import duties in 14 years.

Beef imports are likely to increase to the country’s highest level since 2001 after growing more than 10 percent last year, said Shiro Ohashi, executive director of the Japan Meat Traders Association, in an interview in Tokyo on Thursday. Foreign beef is sought as a cheaper alternative to Japanese meat and fish, he said.

Beef consumption rose 6.8 percent in the seven months to Oct. 31, heading for the fastest annual expansion in at least 12 years, according to the latest data from the Agriculture Ministry. Home-grown production is unable to keep up with demand as elderly farmers are retiring without successors and as the domestic herd shrinks.

Premium wagyu beef is becoming too expensive to buy for many Japanese as demand from overseas buyers is expanding, buoying prices, Ohashi said. Less fatty beef from Australia and the U.S. is becoming popular, especially among senior consumers, Ohashi said.

U.S. beef imports are expanding at a faster pace than Australian shipments, despite increased tariffs applied by Japan on U.S. frozen beef in August, because prices remain competitive, Ohashi said. In the 11 months through November, imports of U.S. beef climbed 26.6 percent from a year earlier and purchases from Australia rose 5.5 percent, according to the Agriculture Ministry. The U.S. accounts for 42 percent of total imports.

“Regardless of the tariff increase, prices of U.S. beef have stayed low thanks to a weakening dollar,” Ohashi said. Low feed-grain prices in Chicago and an expanding American herd have also kept U.S. beef affordable, he said.

Imports are likely to expand in the medium term due to trade agreements with 10 Pacific nations and the European Union.

“Ireland is eager to boost beef shipments to Japan, taking advantage of the trade agreement, as the nation expects to lose sales in the U.K. because of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU,” Ohashi said. Shipments from Canada and Mexico will probably increase after the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is implemented.

The restaurant industry is taking note. Noodle shop operator Kourakuen Holdings Corp. decided last year to turn some of its restaurants into steakhouses through a franchise agreement with Pepper Food Service Co. Ltd., the operator of popular “Ikinari Steak” shops. Bronco Billy Co. Ltd. expects a 20 percent increase in operating profits this year as the company expands its steak restaurants.

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