The U.S. Meat Export Federation opened its Strategic Planning Conference Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona. The conference kicked off with an address by Chief Executive Officer Philip Seng in which he discussed pressing issues affecting international meat trade, including the need for improved market access in key destinations such as Japan.
Seng explained that he fields many questions about the potential for a free trade agreement with Japan. While such an agreement is sorely needed, Seng doesn’t see U.S.-Japan negotiations anywhere on the horizon.
“The Japanese government has made it clear in its public statements that it doesn’t want to discuss an FTA with the United States at this point in time,” Seng said, noting that Japan is deeply involved in negotiations with the remaining participants in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is looking to eventually expand TPP to include other East Asian countries in the agreement. Japan also recently completed negotiations on an economic partnership agreement with the European Union.
Seng also previewed the upcoming 2018 World Meat Congress, a biennial event that USMEF will co-host with the International Meat Secretariat May 30-June 1 in Dallas. The World Meat Congress is the world’s premier gathering of beef, pork, lamb and veal industry leaders. The conference brings together producers, exporters, marketing specialists, policy analysts, economists and meat scientists to exchange ideas and experiences on key issues affecting the international meat and livestock sectors.
“Hosting the World Meat Congress allows us to extol the U.S. model for agriculture,” Seng said. “We have a science-based agricultural industry, and we embrace science, so this is a wonderful opportunity to showcase our way of production and our way of food safety assurance.”
Joel Haggard, USMEF senior vice president for the Asia Pacific, followed with a detailed overview of current market conditions and opportunities in China, which is a mainstay market for U.S. pork and recently reopened to U.S. beef.
China’s pork imports from all suppliers have trended lower in 2017 as a result of a rebound in domestic pork production. While this is not unusual for China, Haggard cautioned that the current upward trend in production may be more sustainable than in the past because of a shift away from small, backyard producers to more modern, larger-scale production facilities.
“China realizes it needs to provide greater information to its producers in order to smooth out the hog cycle,” Haggard explained. “So China is working on that, and they’re promoting larger-scale enterprises.”
After an absence of more than 13 years, China officially reopened to U.S. beef on June 12 – though the first significant shipments began in July. Haggard reported that USMEF’s first large promotional event for U.S. beef – a three-city “roadshow” in late September that attracted hundreds of qualified buyers and about 20 U.S. exporting companies – was very successful in showcasing the unique attributes of U.S. beef. But he noted that with a small percentage of U.S. beef currently meeting China’s import requirements, it will take time for U.S. beef to gain a foothold in this promising market.
“I have confidence in U.S. beef’s opportunities in China, but let’s not forget how long it took in some of these other countries,” Haggard noted. “We started from nowhere in Japan and Korea, selling a few thousand tons, and faced a similar challenge in Taiwan. We’re going to make this work in China, but you’ll have to be patient. It’s not going to take months – it’s going to take years.”
Conference attendees also learned how the evolution of shopping and dining habits in key international markets is playing a major role in determining USMEF’s strategies for promoting U.S. red meat. From crockpot recipe ideas in Mexico, to employee cooking demonstrations held in Japanese workplaces, to specially-packaged processed meat snacks in South Korea, USMEF staff is constantly adapting to meet the needs of food companies that serve consumers in these countries.
“Consumers around the globe are the end users of our products, and they play into the decisions we make about programs to increase demand for U.S. beef, pork and lamb,” explained Greg Hanes, USMEF assistant vice president for international marketing and programs, who moderated a panel discussion titled “Global Consumer Attitudes and Trends.”
Members of the panel included Taz Hijikata, USMEF senior manager for consumer affairs in Japan, Gerardo Rodriguez, USMEF director of marketing and trade development in Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic, and Jihae Yang, USMEF director in South Korea.
Hijikata noted that Japanese consumers spend more time and money on meals than consumers in most countries. She also pointed out that there is a growing preference for red meat as the main source of protein in those meals.
“For young people and families, we have promoted thick cuts for American barbecue,” said Hijikata. This concept has become very popular with both consumers and the retailers who are able to trim labor costs because there is less slicing required at the stores.”
For the aging population in Japan, USMEF has offered educational information about the need for older people to eat more protein to live healthier.
“More and more, the protein source is becoming red meat,” said Hijikata. “This is something we’ve really paid attention to and we are working to take advantage of the desire for more protein by this age group.”
Hijikata also highlighted the recent increase in tourism in Japan, which has benefited the country’s foodservice sector.
Speaking on the Mexican market, Rodriguez said USMEF is developing new cooking methods that use a wider variety of cuts, with the goal of changing the way consumers think.
“They are used to traditional cooking using traditional cuts,” he said. “We think by giving them new ideas, it will help ensure demand continues to grow.”
Rodriguez described an ongoing promotion by USMEF that features crockpots sold with recipe cards inside. The recipes are for dishes many in Mexico have not tried – an effort to entice consumers to break free of traditional cooking and explore new concepts.
Another method of cooking that continues to be popular in Mexico – and a method that bodes well for U.S. red meat – is grilling.
“Grilling is something that Mexican consumers are committed to, because it’s an opportunity to gather with family, gather with friends, and enjoy a great meal,” said Rodriguez.
Yang discussed changing social behaviors in Korea, including a younger generation that appears to prefer dining alone. Convenience has become a priority for food companies, which are offering more ready-to-eat meals.
Meanwhile, e-commerce platforms continue to grow, as more and more Koreans purchase food items – including meat – online.
Retailers are trending toward thicker cuts in their meat departments and steak has never been more popular among Koreans, Yang noted. “Grocerants” – where consumers can purchase a cut of meat and then pay a few extra dollars to have it cooked in the store, are competing with e-commerce for the convenience-minded consumer in Korea.
Korea’s millennial generation appears attracted to the growing assortment of protein-based snack foods, many that are made with processed meats.
“This is a developing product that shows great potential for U.S. beef and pork,” said Yang.
Korea’s rapidly growing food truck craze has increased demand for chilled U.S. beef, Yang added.
“Korea has become more geared toward fast and convenient meals, yet consumers still want quality,” said Yang. “There is a lot of opportunity for U.S. beef and pork and the products are being utilized in many, many ways.”
The USMEF Strategic Planning Conference continued Thursday, and will conclude Friday morning with a closing business session that includes election of new officers.