Times are changing in the Japanese beef market, with a new generation of younger consumers coming through with different sets of values and expectations about the food products they eat.
Where the market traditionally has been dominated by grainfed at the premium end of the beef product range, particularly at retail level, suddenly cracks are starting to appear where none previously existed, allowing entry points for items like quality grassfed and lighter, younger yearling beef.
It is part of as much wider consumer reorientation that is occurring in Japan according to Meat and Livestock Australia Japan region manager, Melanie Brock, who caught up with Beef Central during a brief Australian visit last week.
While Australia’s chilled grassfed exports to Japan are still relatively modest, compared with chilled grainfed (24,400t for January-June 2011, compared with 46,700t for grainfed), grassfed’s proportion of overall chilled trade is growing.
Much of Australia’s grassfed chilled trade in earlier times was confined to certain market segments like mid to lower-level family restaurants, serving competitively priced steaks.
“It’s still early days in the grassfed story in Japan, but there are a number of attractions to it,” Ms Brock said.
“One is price sensitivity, of course, which is very apparent at the moment due to the state of the Japanese economy. But also, younger Japanese consumers, particularly, are perhaps looking for other options, including leaner and lighter products.”
She admitted that there was a challenge attached to ‘selling’ quality grassfed product to more traditional Japanese consumers, given their long exposure to a USDA grainfed type product at retail, with whiter fat and higher marbling.
“But equally, the Japanese have always shown themselves to me to be very receptive to new trends, and ideas. Presented well, and in a way that retailers and food service operators can pass on to their own customers, we think there are good prospects to grow Australian grassfed, natural and yearling.”
Ms Brock said given the difficulties being experienced in the Japanese food service sector at present since the economic downturn and Tsunami, the chilled grassfed focus might be primarily at retail, which could then provide some pull-through effect when consumers were dining out.
“But there’s no doubt there will be a big educational task ahead. That will be information-based at the start – simply outlining what grassfed is, and what makes it different. But it will also be brand driven.”
Much of that education process would occur through the in-store demonstration process, which had been a key component to Australia’s retail promotional effort in Japan for a considerable period.
“When MLA brought a group of Japanese women to Australia recently as part of the Iron Beauty campaign, many already had an idea of what they thought grassfed beef was all about. But they were favourably surprised by samples they tried while visiting Australia, in how the product looked and ate,” Ms Brock said.
She said there was a host of successful MSA-backed grassfed brands out of Australia that could find a successful niche in Japan over time, including some of the newer Four-Star type products. The Industry Collaborative Agreement promotion programs could play a role in developing penetration in the Japanese market for quality grassfed brands.
Underpinning that would be Australia’s broader reputation for consistent quality, high levels of food safety, traceability and healthy options.
Ms Brock said any growth in chilled grassfed would be more in addition to, rather than instead of existing grainfed business.
- Melanie Brock provides more insights into developments in the Japanese market, including a new iron campaign, on Beef Central tomorrow.
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