Japan is one of the United States' strongest trading partners for red meat, but continued COVID restrictions have limited the return of the foodservice sector in the country. Restrictions have been gradually eased, and restaurant traffic is beginning to rebound.
U.S. Meat Export Federation President and CEO Dan Halstrom recently made his first post-COVID trip to Japan and notes that even with fewer restrictions, Japanese consumers are still wary of large gatherings and public spaces.
"On my way in it was the most empty I've seen it ever. I think it'll take a little bit of time for the consumer in Japan to get used to the post-COVID environment because the government definitely does not want to shut down again, they want to keep things open. But the consumers, it's going to take a little bit of time for them to adjust and get used to that I think. I was a bit surprised that food service hadn't recovered any more than it had. People are fully masked inside and outside," Halstrom says.
"The family style dining sector, especially the yakiniku sector, is seeing some rebound. But that isn't true for the whole food service sector. And while food service is up, it's from a very low base a year ago, so I think there's a lot of upside later in the year for food service. Meanwhile, retail and online e-commerce activity continues to boom."
U.S. beef is very strong in Japanese food service, but Halstrom says he talked with buyers who expressed growing interest in pork for retail.
"From the standpoint that certain cuts are maybe a little cheaper than beef, and also the fact that poultry prices are so high in Japan the chicken prices," Halstrom says. "So I think pork is well positioned in that regard. There was a bit of optimism at retail in particular around pork, so that was encouraging."
The U.S red meat industry has a long commitment to Japan that will be celebrated next month.
"We are celebrating our 45th anniversary of our Japan office established in 1977, and we will be holding a trade seminar on Sept. 16 In Tokyo, and we're expecting to have upwards of 200 people," Halstrom says. "This will be the first large business venture of this sort in a post-COVID environment, so it's not only a chance to celebrate the 45th anniversary but more importantly to tell our story, remind people of the strength of U.S. beef, pork and lamb for that matter."
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