Tokyo has seen a steakhouse boom in the last couple of years, especially at the high end. But whether it is an expensive steakhouse or a hamburg restaurant, there’s no doubt that Aussie beef has the preeminent position in the Japanese market – thanks in part to the efforts of Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), the organization tasked with promoting Australian beef and lamb in Japan. In 2014, Australian beef held a 55% share of the Japanese market for imported beef and 70% for lamb.
MLA concentrates its efforts on cultivating and maintaining positive perceptions toward Australian beef; ensuring retailers remain loyal to Aussie beef via expanded merchandising techniques; educating consumers in the health attributes of eating beef in all marketing activities; and continuing to improve the image and awareness of Australian beef quality through chef networking activities.
Overseeing MLA’s operations in Japan is Andrew Cox, who has been the regional manager since February 2014. Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Cox to hear more.
How much beef does Australia export to Japan?
We bring in around 250,000 tons of beef a year to Japan, worth about U.S.$1.5 billion. Japan is Australia’s biggest export market for beef. We have a 55% share of imported beef.
Is beef consumption increasing in Japan?
Beef consumption took a hit of about 50% directly after BSE was found in Japan and also in North America in 2003 and it has never fully recovered. Total consumption remains 25% below where it was per capita before the BSE scare. Last year, consumer confidence was stronger and beef consumption increased by 6%. The yakiniku trade improves when consumer confidence is strong and they reported a huge increase in sales last year by 10-15% in that sector.
The high-end steakhouse boom is indicative of a resurgence as consumer confidence increases. We certainly hope it won’t be a short-term trend. In those restaurants, price is less of a factor than quality. It could be where a business deal is closed or a family celebrating a once-a-year event.
Where is Aussie beef sold?
You can find it at high-end steakhouses, yakiniku restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, and family chains like Royal Host, Jonathons and McDonald’s whose beef is nearly 100% Australian. We have a long relationship with the Japanese market, having been here for more than 50 years. Australian beef is very diverse. We offer grain-fed and grass-fed beef from different breeds of animals for all segments of the food service and retail sectors.
How will the Free Trade Agreement signed by Japan and Australia last year affect beef prices?
Tariffs on Australian beef were previously 38.5%. As of April , the tariff on chilled beef is 31.5% and 28.5% for frozen, so that is a meaningful reduction and a competitive advantage. However, the price at retail level depends on a number of other factors – currency exchange rates, weather patterns and global protein demand.
In what areas are you looking to grow the business?
Japan is a mature market, and our product is prominent at the retail level and all levels of food service. So the strategy here is not necessarily to generate new leads but to partner with the trade to help grow their business and keep it. Aussie beef is one of the most well known food brands among Japanese consumers. That is a huge asset we have and we want to promote loyalty among Japanese customers.
I should point out that MLA is a non-commercial marketing body, chiefly a promotion body using funds from cattle farmers to promote Australian beef overseas. The actual sales are done by the exporters, some of whom have offices in Japan.
Where do you focus your marketing activities?
One area is consumer promotion through the media. We want Japanese consumers to identify our brand as one that is highly suited to their lifestyle. We consider ourselves part of the Japanese food chain. In the 1990s, we developed a strong mainstream media presence but now we use more social and digital media, and partner with retailers to promote our brand. A key part of our business is to ensure that buyers understand the quality and safety of Australian beef. It’s important that buyers see that for themselves, so we sometimes bring them to Australia.
Transparency is important, too. For example, McDonald’s have over 3,000 stores in Japan and they are one of our biggest customers in terms of volume. McDonald’s have recently started printing tray mats that tell the story of where their beef comes from, where it is processed and how it ends up on the customer’s tray. We help them facilitate that.
What activities do you do at the retail level?
Sampling our product at retail level is a good way to obtain consumer acceptance and purchase. We carry out many sampling events in supermarkets and we help retailers with cutting techniques to minimize waste.
When you are out and about, do you like to go into supermarkets to see how Aussie beef is being displayed?
I always look at how our beef is displayed in supermarkets. We launched a new logo last year to replace the red Aussie Beef logo. The new one appears on more than 50% of packages sold now, so it is easy to spot.
By the way, why can’t I get good beef sausages in Japan?
I get asked that question quite a lot. In Japan, consumers’ taste is more for the German style pork sausages.
How is the lamb business?
Lamb is an interesting business in Japan. It’s mostly a niche market but if you go to Hokkaido, Genghis Khan lamb is almost the national dish there. Lamb is also popular in western parts of Honshu where there used to be a sheep industry. Overall, we have an 70% market share of the lamb market.
Isn’t there a perception among Japanese that lamb is smelly?
That used to be the case in a lot of Asian countries because it was mutton which does have a stronger flavor. That has changed in recent years. We are putting on a bit of a push to raise the image and profile of Australian lamb. I’ll be taking a group of Japanese chefs to Melbourne this month to meet some Australian chefs who are doing dynamic things with lamb and ultimately inspire these chefs to use lamb in innovative ways. Japanese people love grilled meat, so it is not an uphill battle.
What is a typical day for you?
There is no typical day. I travel around Japan a fair amount to speak with customers or do speeches. In Tokyo I may start the day with a breakfast or coffee meeting before heading into the office. I may attend a trade show, ANZCCJ or government event - or discuss upcoming campaigns with our communications agencies. But ultimately my job is to manage a committed team of marketing professionals and help them achieve success in their projects, so I focus my office time on that.
How often do you eat steak?
My schedule requires me to eat a lot of steak, particularly at functions and business meetings, so there is no shortage of steak in my diet! I like a good rib-eye but I also love yakiniku. One thing I like about dining in Tokyo is that if you want to eat beef, there are so many fantastic options no matter what your budget.© Japan Today