WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - At the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo last month, beef promoters flew in a chef from Canada to cook New York strip steaks for hungry Japanese importers and restaurant suppliers.
The annual Canadian beef buffet reception attracted 126 people, up sharply from the usual 30 to 40.
A trade deal among Pacific nations — called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — took effect on Dec. 30 among the first six of 11 member countries to ratify it, including Canada, Japan and Australia.
The pact’s real prize, Canadian exporters say, are reduced Japanese tariffs for beef, pork, wheat and canola oil. Japan is the world’s third-largest beef importer and seventh-largest wheat buyer, often buying top-quality supplies to meet consumer demand for soft, white breads and beef raised on grain, not grass.
For Canada, following a year of volatile relations with the United States and China, the deal offers a rare opportunity to seize market share from the United States, which withdrew from the pact after President Donald Trump took office.
Canada’s opportunity illustrates the risks of Trump’s drastic trade actions. Farmers are key Trump supporters, but they have been among the hardest-hit from the trade war with China.
U.S. beef packers such as Tyson Inc. and National Beef Packing Co. also stand to lose, while Canadian grain exporters Richardson International and Viterra may gain.
At the Tokyo beef buffet, enthusiasm for Canadian beef transcended borders.
“The interest was as high as I’ve ever seen,” said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, who has been visiting Japan since the 1980s. “This new agreement is one of the most significant opportunities we’ve seen since the original NAFTA (North American Free Trade) agreement was signed.”
Among those sampling Canadian beef were buyers from the Japanese units of Costco Wholesale Corp., Cargill Inc. and JBS SA, Laycraft said. Costco declined to comment and JBS did not respond.
In a statement, Cargill said it advocates for U.S. participation in the Pacific trade pact so that exporters and consumers do not miss out on its benefits. Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company wants to see a bilateral pact between the U.S. and Japan “to ensure we remain competitive.”
Sensing opportunity, Alberta packer Harmony Beef made it a priority last year to secure Canadian and Japanese approval allowing it to sell to Japan. Now Harmony is planning its first shipment next month of 52,000 pounds (23,636 kg) of fresh and frozen beef.
“We put pressure on and fast-tracked the Japan approval,” said Harmony’s director of marketing, Cam Daniels. “They are an affluent society that is willing and able to pay for the best.”
Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is Canada’s second-biggest beef market after the United States. Even so, Canada’s sales to Japan amounted to 27,000 tons from January through October 2018, about what U.S. exporters ship there in one month.
Lower tariffs boost any product’s competitiveness in Japan in the long run, but in the short term, preferences for specific brands, as well as a country’s supply capacity, are also factors, said a Japanese official from the farm ministry who was not authorized to speak publicly.