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New US Pork Cut Finds Success in Japan

by 5m Editor
16 December 2009, at 9:06am

JAPAN - Can you imagine a summer barbecue season without pork back ribs? Until this year, Japanese consumers had never had the opportunity to savor this American cookout favourite.

Before the spring of 2009, the pork back rib did not exist in Japan outside of a select few restaurants because the domestic pork industry produces single-ribbed loins. Even the Japanese pork industry did not know about the back rib. Enter the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

“Although Japan is the premier export market for the US pork industry, there are opportunities for growth, including unexplored niches like back ribs,“ said Takemichi Yamashoji, senior marketing director for USMEF-Japan. “Because of the way the hog is processed in Japan, neither consumers nor the trade have experienced pork back ribs, and we saw this as a real opening for US pork.“

What followed from there is a textbook product introduction that, with support from the Pork Checkoff, has put back ribs on the radar – and the plates – of millions of Japanese consumers.

The debut

USMEF introduced pork back ribs in Japan at the March 2009 FoodEx trade show, where the high-value cut drew immediate interest from a number of buyers, including national retailers Ito Yokado and Aeon.

Ito Yokado, which has 179 outlets in Japan with estimated retail sales of $15.9 billon, took the lead and began selling back ribs immediately after FoodEx. USMEF helped the retailer organize tasting demonstrations to support test sales at a limited number of outlets, and the popularity of the item led Ito Yokado to expand sales to 100 stores by July.

USMEF also teamed with Ito Yokado to conduct a US pork sweepstakes campaign at its 105 outlets in the Kanto region during November with funding support from both the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council and the Nebraska Soybean Board. Fifty winning couples received an invitation to a US pork Christmas lunch party at the Westin Hotel Tokyo on 20 December, where US pork baby back ribs will be the main attraction. Ito Yokado reported selling about 20 metric tons (44,000 pounds) of the back ribs during the sweepstakes.

Retail giant Aeon, with 1,850 stores and estimated retail sales of $58.1 billion, also debuted back ribs this spring and enjoyed better than expected sales results.

Retail support

Since the pork back rib was an experiment for Japanese consumers and retailers, USMEF took a different approach to the point-of-sale (POS) materials it developed for the rollout. First it worked with cooking instructors and chefs to develop recipes that worked in Japanese kitchens and fit with local cuisine. Then it developed educational POS materials to help consumers understand the product and provide recipes so families could enjoy back ribs at home.

The next step was a sales manual for retailers to help them better display the product and educate them on selling points for back ribs.

In addition, USMEF placed news articles regarding the new back ribs in both women’s magazines and trade publications to reach consumers as well as importers and traders.

Foodservice rollout

The retail channel wasn’t the only avenue USMEF explored for introducing back ribs. It conducted a baby back rib promotion with Guru Navi (Gourmet Navigator), Japan’s best-known restaurant Web site, which draws more than 850 million hits per month. Forty-eight restaurants participated in the month-long promotion from late August through late September, with most of the restaurants using back ribs for the first time. Chefs at each restaurant developed their own back rib recipes, and more than 60 per cent reported the promotion was a success. In fact, 40 per cent of the participating restaurants decided to add pork back ribs to their permanent menu after the promotion ended.

2010 growth potential

While the introduction of pork back ribs in Japan has been an unqualified success — more than 1,500 retail outlets started selling back ribs in 2009 — USMEF foresees potential for expanded sales in the coming year..

“Most of the retail outlets are promoting US pork back ribs for Christmas and the year-end celebrations,“ said Mr Yamashoji. “We estimate that about 100 metric tons (220,000 pounds) of back ribs will be sold in December at retail and food service, and the outlook for 2010 looks good.“

For the year, USMEF estimates that the United States will have exported 660,000 pounds of pork back ribs by the time the holiday season is completed.

In addition, the new demand for relatively expensive back ribs will help US exporters comply with Japan’s complex gate price system. The gate price system requires importers to pay a duty for products priced under a specific per-pound price. The popularity of pork back ribs will enable US exporters to pair them with less expensive pork loins and avoid paying the additional duties.

Through the first 10 months of 2009, the United States has exported 783.4 million pounds of pork products to Japan valued at nearly $1.3 billion.