Business / Corporate

Niigata firm Biotech Japan strives to introduce precooked rice to the Philippines

by Ronron Calunsod

Kyodo

A local subsidiary of a Japanese company is introducing precooked, ready-to-eat rice products to the Philippine market using its parent firm’s unique technology.

BiotechJP Corp., based in Batangas province immediately south of the capital, Manila, last year launched Echigo, a precooked, protein-reduced rice intended mainly for people with chronic kidney disease.

The company is now working on the commercial distribution this year of three other products — Insta Rice (regular, precooked rice that only needs to be microwaved), Gohan Lite (calorie-reduced precooked rice, also for reheating), and Rice-to-Go (ready-to-eat rice that can be consumed without heating) — all sold in 200-gram packs.

All four products use locally grown Rc-160 rice, which is close in characteristics and quality to Japanese rice, said Trisha Ann Garcia, the company’s general manager.

The products are licensed by the government’s Food and Drug Administration and have shelf lives of either six months or one year, she added.

“Our product is rice, and for Filipinos, ‘rice is life.’ So, our (company) chairman, Kiyosada Egawa, sees a big market here,” Garcia, a nutritionist by profession, said in a recent interview.

Egawa’s main company, Biotech Japan Corp., was launched in 1994 and is based in Niigata Prefecture. The Philippine subsidiary, the company’s only foreign unit to date, was established in April 2015, with commercial operations commencing in January 2017. So far, it is the only company producing precooked, packed rice in the country.

“Our challenge here in the Philippines is that Filipinos are used to eating rice straight from the pot. We are still not used to opening a pack, placing it in the microwave oven, and then having your rice ready to eat in two minutes,” Garcia said.

To deal with this traditional lifestyle barrier, the company is marketing its products through exhibits — most recently at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute — and by initially targeting consumers in the top two income classes.

Garcia said the preparation of Echigo, the parent company’s top processed rice product brand, involves fermentation using plant-based lactic acid bacteria. With lower protein content, it is an ideal supplement for the diets of people suffering from chronic kidney disease. The Philippines has an alarming prevalence of kidney disease. Medical experts say one Filipino dies from the disease every hour, making it the seventh leading cause of death in the country. Based on the latest available data from the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, or NKTI, there were 32,077 dialysis patients nationwide in 2015, and the trend shows a 15 percent increase every year. “This is very important — before, the main cause was chronic glomerulonephritis; now, it’s mainly diabetes mellitus and hypertension,” Rose Marie Liquete, executive director of the NKTI, said of the kidney cases in the Philippines.

Romina Danguilan, deputy director for medical education of the NKTI, said that while protein-reduced rice such as Echigo is theoretically advantageous for kidney patients, the institute has yet to conduct its own study to prove its effectiveness.

According to BiotechJP’s Garcia, a five-year study in Japan showed that consumption of Echigo among those monitored in a clinical trial yielded a significant decrease in urinary protein excretion.

Since its launch last year in the Philippines, Echigo has been sold at a retail price of 55 pesos (around ¥114) per pack and has also been distributed to a few dialysis centers in Manila. It is available as well in some branches of one supermarket and through one online store, where Insta Rice and Gohan Lite can also be purchased. Insta Rice is the cheapest, with a retail price of 35 pesos, while Gohan Lite is sold at 45 pesos.

Based on an initial assessment, Gohan Lite has seen the warmest reception because of its low-calorie content, Garcia said. It is recommended for those with diabetes and on low-caloric diets. Rice-to-Go, meanwhile, will primarily be marketed to the government — specifically the Department of Social Welfare and Development — because it is considered an “emergency rice,” intended for emergency and disaster situations. The target retail price is 25 pesos.

Garcia said the company hopes to eventually expand the number of stores that sell their products, as well as their distribution reach. Based on the current demand, the company can produce an estimated 60,000 packs of all four products each month.

“If there’s need for more we can add more production staff,” Garcia said, adding that the production plant is currently utilizing only half of its available space.

While the company is concerned that their products might not be totally accepted by many Filipinos, because they involve “a brand new lifestyle” in rice consumption and are more expensive than traditionally prepared rice, Garcia said the company draws confidence from the fact that rice is such a significant part of the Filipino diet and that the number of health-conscious consumers is growing.

“Eventually, we would like to introduce the ‘bottled water’ story to the Filipinos. Before, when you bought bottled water, they would say you are crazy because you can just get water from the faucet. But eventually, Filipinos got used to buying bottled water for 20 pesos anywhere. We would want that to happen to our products,” she said.

She added that the company is also banking on the growing middle class in the country, and the trend demonstrated by consumers of a known international coffee shop — which first drew in those from the top two income classes and later expanded its reach to lower income classes.

Aside from the four existing products, BiotechJP is currently developing a low-calorie rice grain as well as more variety in their packed precooked rice. One example would be including a sauce or viand to produce a product such as adobo rice — which the company says would be “a tailored fit for Filipinos.”