by Craig Morris, Ph.D., Vice President of International Marketing

Craig Morris, Vice President of International Marketing for the Pork Checkoff

I read an article recently about why Sichuan food—even the best of the best—doesn’t taste the same outside of the Chinese province. The article was an in-depth look at what makes Sichuan food so unique (spoiler alert, it’s the special peppercorns) and the traditional preparations. Besides making me hungry and adding Chengdu (the capital of China’s Sichuan province) to my bucket list, one portion of the article stood out. Specifically, the article stated “food is the best vehicle to understand the people and the culture,” a sentiment I couldn’t agree more with.

It’s also why I’m so excited to join David Newman and Gregg Hora, along with other commodity producers and leaders, on the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s (USMEF) 2018 Japan Heartland Tour. Food— and pork— will be central to understanding the Japanese people and culture and that understanding will help us better target our international marketing efforts in a meaningful way.

Each year, USMEF takes a delegation of United States producers and agricultural leaders to visit Japan, a major export country for U.S. agricultural products. The delegation is composed of beef, corn, soybean, and pork producers, along with other allied industry representatives. During the trip, the delegation will visit various retail and foodservice establishments to understand the domestic demands of the country better, as well as participate in a tasting of the U.S. pork and beef products that are sold in-country. These visits allow USMEF to showcase their marketing efforts for U.S. meat products sold across Japan.

We’ll start our tour in Osaka, Japan which is known for its dynamic food culture and has its early roots as Japan’s rice trade hub. There we’ll meet with major food companies and buyers to continue building on USMEF’s relationships with key influencers in the regions. I have no doubt that David and Gregg will carry forward the message about our superior U.S. pork products to these key customers.

There is no doubt that these conversations will be critical, but just as much so will be our real-time observations of how pork is being cut, sold, packaged and prepared in Japan. While in Osaka, we’ll have the opportunity to visit several retail venues and visiting these establishments will not only allow us to witness the U.S. pork promotional campaigns firsthand, but it will also allow for us to observe the different specifications required for our products depending on the retailer.

The way pork is showcased and sold depends largely on the retail establishment—which is why we’ll be visiting several while we’re in Osaka. Supermarkets, clubs, warehouse outlets like Walmart and Costco account for a 76.6 percent market share, while convenience stores currently account for 14.1 percent—yet this number is on the rise as convenience stores continue to increase in popularity across the country, but particularly in Osaka.

Pork packaged for a large box wholesaler is much different than the pork packaged for a convenience store establishment—and we need those insights in order to better tailor our U.S. pork promotions to the specific type or retail market. And, the rise of convenience stores in the region also provides great insight into the people and the culture—and the changing landscape of food and food preparation in Japan.

As we move from Osaka to Kyoto and then onto Tokyo, the focus will continue to be on the food as a window into the people and the culture. In Kyoto, we’ll meet with three key influential buyers that attended the World Meat Congress at “Moritaya,” one of the traditional Japanese restaurants in Kyoto. This restaurant, established in 1869 is famous for the Japanese “hot pot,” and we’ll no doubt be stimulated both by the conversation with key buyers, but also be the traditional preparation of a famous Japanese delicacy.

In Tokyo, we’ll have the chance to visit a long-standing butcher shop, and experience first-hand how pork is broken down, cut and packaged according to Japanese consumer preferences. We will also visit a beef and pork market to see a live Japanese pork carcass auction and close the trip with another traditional Japanese meal, this time partaking in the traditional “Yudofu” and “Tempura” menu offerings.

Throughout the week we’ll meet with government officials, buyers, media and other influential stakeholders, working to develop better relationships and highlight the superior quality of our U.S. pork products.

We can continue to succeed in capturing a larger portion of this important export market pie, and this trip is critical to gathering the intelligence we need to guide our marketing efforts in Japan. If we can walk away from this trip remembering that pork is not only center of the plate, but, as a food is the heartbeat of the country and the best indicator of Japan’s culture and people’s desire—we can, and will, be successful.

Be sure to follow along on the Heartland Tour with #HeartlandTeam2018.