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Heartland Team Explores U.S. Red Meat Successes, Potential in Japan

USMEF’s eighth Heartland Team featured a mix of producers and other agricultural industry leaders getting a firsthand look at the success of U.S. red meat in Japan, as well the potential for future growth in the leading value market for both U.S. beef and pork.

USMEF Chair-elect Conley Nelson addresses a trade seminar for Japanese buyers in Osaka, Japan

USMEF Chair-elect Conley Nelson addresses a trade seminar for Japanese buyers in Osaka, Japan

The team, which included pork, beef, soybean and corn producers from Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Idaho, spent time in Osaka and Tokyo observing USMEF marketing activities, studying the presentation of U.S. red meat at the retail level and exploring Japan’s domestic production.

Importantly, team members were also able to meet face-to-face with Japanese consumers to learn about tastes and preferences in the market.

USMEF Heartland Team members learn about Japanese-style meat cutting at a butcher shop in Osaka

USMEF Heartland Team members learn about Japanese-style meat cutting at a butcher shop in Osaka

“The main purpose of our Heartland Team is to show U.S. producers the export market potential in Japan and how USMEF works to create demand for U.S. red meat and develop the Japanese market,” Dan Halstrom, USMEF president and CEO, said. “Japan is our largest market and, despite some of the trade challenges we’ve faced, the numbers continue to look very good. This year’s Heartland Team was able to see not only what we have accomplished as an industry but also what we need to continue to develop to keep export trends going in this same positive direction.”

USMEF Heartland Team member Pat Gabel shows off cuts of U.S. beef and pork at a consumer event promoting American-style cutting and cooking

USMEF Heartland Team member Pat Gabel shows off cuts of U.S. beef and pork at a consumer event promoting American-style cutting and cooking

In addition to hosting a trade seminar for Japanese buyers in both cities – each seminar included a U.S. beef and pork tasting session – the Heartland Team mingled with Japanese consumers in Osaka at an American-style cooking and grilling event sponsored by the Nebraska Soybean Association. In Osaka, the team toured a wagyu cattle farm and witnessed Japanese meat cutting techniques at a butcher shop and processing facility.

In Tokyo, the team learned more about the Japanese market through briefings by USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) officials and in meetings with Tokyo representatives of the U.S. Grains Council and the U.S. Soybean Export Council. The team also toured meat markets selling beef and pork.

Nebraska Director of Agriculture Steve Wellman, a member of the Heartland Team, pointed out the value of having producers participate on international trade missions.

“There’s a lot of passion from farmers and ranchers – they believe in what they do, and they believe in their products,” said Wellman. “When they are able to participate in a group effort like this in a foreign country, it is just a great demonstration of U.S. agriculture working together.”

USMEF Chair-elect Conley Nelson, who joined USMEF staff in leading the mission, expanded on the importance of reaching the younger generation of consumers in Japan.

“My hope for this trip was that producers were able to connect with customers in Japan, and that each producer was able to tell the story of their farm or ranch back home in the U.S. – tell the story of how we are dedicated to raising healthy and wholesome red meat,” said Nelson. “And I think the Heartland Team was able to do that. It’s very important in a country like Japan, because they want to know where their meat comes from. They want the story, and U.S. producers have a great story to tell.

USMEF Heartland Team member Gwen Beckman offers samples of U.S. beef and pork to Japanese consumers

USMEF Heartland Team member Gwen Beckman offers samples of U.S. beef and pork to Japanese consumers

Nelson, general manager of Smithfield Foods’ hog production division in the Midwest region, also noted that younger Japanese consumers are eating less seafood and more red meat, which creates opportunities for the U.S. industry.

“The more we can get in front of this younger generation in Japan, the more we are opening their eyes to what U.S. red meat is all about, which is pretty exciting to see,” said Nelson.

U.S. beef continues to attract consumers in Japan with the help of new USMEF promotions like the recent “Pound Steak” campaign. Lee Bradshaw, a Heartland Team member representing the Idaho Beef Council, said offering new ideas for serving and selling U.S. beef is vital.

“Meeting USMEF staff in Tokyo and learning about all the projects and work they have going on was really educational and affirming,” said Bradshaw, a cattle feeder and livestock nutritionist. “To have people on the ground in a market like Japan is important when you realize the competition out there. It’s a market several other countries are trying to win over.”

USMEF also gave the Heartland Team insight into its ongoing U.S. pork promotional efforts in Japan.

“Relationships are important in any market, but especially so in Japan, and it was good to see how USMEF has worked to build relationships there with all aspects of the food industry,” said Gregg Hora, a hog, corn and soybean producer from Fort Dodge, Iowa. “Japan is our top value market, but no one has rested. If anything, the work is ramping up to sell more U.S. pork there.”

Ed Lammers, a member of the USMEF executive committee who represented the United Soybean Board on the Heartland Team, says successful red meat exports to markets like Japan are vital for U.S. soybean producers.

The USMEF Heartland Team poses for a group photo on its visit to Japan to learn about the top value market for U.S. beef and pork

The USMEF Heartland Team poses for a group photo on its visit to Japan to learn about the top value market for U.S. beef and pork

“As a soybean producer, I recognize the importance of value-added in agricultural products, especially in red meat production,” said Lammers, who grows soybeans and corn in Hartington, Nebraska. “Recognizing that Japan is a major importer of our pork and beef, it was just a great opportunity for me to go there and experience the excitement Japanese consumers have for U.S. red meat.”

Kevin Ross, of Minden, Iowa, serves on the board of the National Corn Growers Association. Ross said joining USMEF’s Heartland Team allowed him to understand the potential the Japanese market holds for future growth.

“We were there promoting more American-style eating and grilling because we think that will move more meat in the marketplace” said Ross. “In the U.S., we eat larger cuts than they traditionally eat here, and there is great potential for red meat consumption growth in Japan.”

Wellman lauded USMEF’s efforts to promote alternative cuts of U.S. red meat, such as beef tongue and short plate that are not popular with U.S. consumers.

“One of the things that this trip confirmed in particular is the value of some of the cuts we don’t utilize very well in the United States,” said Wellman. “To be able to market those cuts in a marketplace like Japan, you realize the value that brings back all the way to the farm level.”

An added component to this year’s Heartland Team mission was the ability to promote U.S. lamb, which officially regained access to the Japanese market in July.

In his presentations to Japanese importers and traders, Nelson noted that Japanese consumers are expected to embrace U.S. lamb’s flavor and consistency.

“The Japanese were always very receptive to the flavor of U.S. lamb, a very succulent protein that will stand up well to competitors’ products in the Japanese market,” said Nelson. “We look forward to promoting U.S. lamb, reintroducing consumers in Japan to the product and growing the market.”