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executive impact

Organic adventures

By Chris Betros

While Japan is still the 2nd largest economy in the world, its organic food market ranks only 9th. In terms of per capita consumption and penetration levels, Japan performs even much worse than this. Over 50% of the global organic food market is in Europe and about 45% in the Americas. Asia, including Japan, represents less than 5% of the global market.

One company is trying to spur an organic revolution in Japan. MIE PROJECT, led by Duco Delgorge, calls itself a “next generation company” in that it aims to make sustainability and social responsibility its core long-term goals. MIE (which stands for Meaning, Inspiration and Effectiveness) imports and sells the highest quality organic, natural, wellness, and fair trade products. Established in 2005, MIE is getting onto an increasing number of shelves in international supermarkets and high-end food stores with products such as Delouis mustard, Michel Montignac non-sugar confiture, Clipper tea, Mount Hagen coffee, Alpro & Provamel soya milk, Natur Compagnie bouillon, and lots more.

Born in Prague, Delgorge, 48, lived in New York, Mumbai and Sydney before venturing to his native Netherlands where he completed a traineeship with Philips. In the 1980s, he joined Unilever in England and was posted to Japan from 1988 until 1992 as marketing manager. Later on, Delgorge joined Puratos Japan, a Belgian food company, as general manager, before leaving end January 2008 to concentrate on MIE PROJECT.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Delgorge at his office in Shibuya to hear more.

What drew you to this business?

I always knew that one day I would run my own business. I am lucky to have found an opportunity where the work is enjoyable, as well as being able to contribute to society and ecology over the long-term.

How was it when you first started MIE PROJECT?

The company was established in 2005. I started getting things ready in my spare time, working early mornings, and on weekends and holidays, with support from my wife and others. But it is only recently, from February 2008, after I left my previous company, that I was able to commit myself fully.

Finding suppliers was the first challenge, and convincing them that they should work with us, an unknown company. Then we had to convince retailers to sell our products, explaining the tremendous opportunity for them in quality organic products. We knew that if we could win over the opinion leaders that others would follow. And that’s where we are at now.

How is the organic food market in Japan?

Despite Japan being the world’s third largest food market, after the U.S. and China, it seriously lags the rest of the developed world in organic food, ranking only 9th in the world in market size (about 70 billion yen), and about 17th in per capita consumption (only 550 yen per person per year) and in organic food’s penetration of the total food market (about 0.2%). These numbers are all amazingly low if we consider how much attention is paid to food, health and food safety in Japan.

The Japanese organic market is perhaps 10-20 years behind Europe and the U.S. One reason is that there is so little grown organic locally. Organic agriculture in Japan accounts for only 0.6% of the total, whereas in Europe it is close to 5%, reaching as high as about 15% in Austria for example.

What is your niche?

Our domain, or niche, is exceptional, great tasting food products. Our main sub niche is organic. We also seek natural, healthy and fair trade products. Many of our products are a combination of these traits. But first and foremost, our products are appreciated for their taste and quality.

Are there any problems with importing certain ingredients?

So far we have encountered no problems regarding importing certain ingredients, but the process for securing organic certification is rather cumbersome and costly. Also, there are some products certified organic in their home country which cannot be certified or declared as organic in Japan due to minor differences in the definition of organic. And it may not always be immediately clear how certain products should be labeled. We liaise closely with the appropriate authorities but they also need time to understand and decide what is correct in some cases. This is all part of the organic adventure.

How do you find your suppliers?

I travel to various parts of the world where exceptional organic products can be found. I visit exhibitions, stores, producers and farms. Currently, we have 17 suppliers. This list will continue to grow as we want to provide consumers with the best possible choices.

What are the main concerns you hear from customers?

Regarding organic products, the main concerns tend to be about price and pack size. But many customers comment that our products are reasonably priced. Regarding pack size, we try to adapt to customer needs. For example, we recently launched Delouis mustards in 100-gram jars, in addition to the existing 200-gram jars. Customers also have growing concerns about pesticides, additives, and so forth. This is increasingly driving them to look for organic alternatives.

What are some of your best-selling products?

Most of the products sell well, but the best selling items include Mount Hagen coffee, Clipper tea, Jardin Bio’ herbal tea, Natur Compagnie bouillons and Delouis mustards. Also, Provamel and Alpro soya milk and desserts are growing fast, and Le Moulin du Pivert cookies and Vitamont pure-pressed juices sales are starting to take off. Our most recent launches, Michel Montignac non-sugar confitures, Daniel’s Fire Roast salsas which have won over 20 awards in recent years, and Organic Healthy Nut macadamia nuts have had a good start. But customers may be interested in some of the more unique items in our range, such as Alter Eco fair trade coffee and chocolate, Tartex vegetarian pate, Emile Noel oils (including argan, macadamia nut and more) and Lou Prunel prune puree from Agen in France. We even have organic gummies (BioBon from Austria) and Babybio baby food from Bordeaux.

Who do you sell to?

Mainly to high-end supermarkets such as Kinokuniya, National Azabu, Nissin World Delicatessen, Seijo Ishii, Queen’s Isetan, Daimaru Peacock, Aoki and many more. We do very well in Isetan and Mitsukoshi department stores as well as in gourmet and specialty stores such as Dean & Deluca and Plaza Style. We sell the Delouis mustards and vinegars, and Emile Noel oils to top restaurants, including one, two and three star Michelin restaurants. The chefs decide on taste, but are very much tuned into organics.

What about the health food sector?

Not yet. Part of the reason is because most people in Japan still do not have a good image of organic food. They think it doesn’t taste good. We want to change that perception by making our products available in places that are focused primarily on taste. But now we are also planning to start with selected health food stores.

How often do you meet customers?

I try to meet retailers, chefs and consumers as often as I can. I enjoy seeing their reactions when they see and taste our products, often commenting that they didn’t realize that such delicious organic products existed. They also appreciate the health benefits, for example, the low glycemic index (GI) non-sugar confitures, soya milk, decaffeinated coffee and tea, etc.

Are your products available nationwide?

Apart from the Tokyo region, we have products in Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya as well as a few regional areas. Consumers can also order online. We have a bilingual (Japanese & English) website, The products are normally delivered within two to three days. CHOOSEE stands for choose exceptional & organic, as well as choose ecological.

Tell us about your team.

Right now, there are five of us. It’s a small team but it works well as everyone is highly motivated and is prepared and able to do what needs to be done. We do expect to add more people this year.

What is a typical day for you?

I try to make each day a bit different. But usually I get to the office by 5 or 6 a.m. During the day, I get out into the market and visit customers. Then I return to the office and stay quite late, perhaps until midnight, communicating with our many suppliers. I do return home, which is just a few minutes walk from the office, to bring the kids to school some mornings, and to spend some time with them in the evenings and on weekends.

How do you relax?

I am not really the relaxing type. Five or 10 minutes break is enough for me. I go jogging in the park a few times a week which is great for revitalization.

Do you eat a lot of organic food yourself?

We have eaten organic food for a long time since my wife has always appreciated its benefits. For obvious reasons, this has now increased. But I am not a health nut. I believe that things should be done in moderation, be well-balanced, and come naturally.

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great interview.

JT please do more interviews like this or create a section with all your past interviews. many people are out of jobs now and need motivation.

Just my two cents worth.

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sorry, i didn't notice you already have. well done.

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It's too expensive!!! Most items (also organic) you can find at Seiju Ishii for a cheaper prize!!

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Somehow, the prices have tripled after they arrive in Japan. Thank you but no thank you. When you hear names like Kinokuniya etc, you know you're in for a shock, price-wise. While organic has proved a hit in many countries, the Japanese are still brainwashed into believing that Japanese products are chemical and pesticide-free. It wasn't too long ago that 'organic' in Japan meant using slightly fewer chemicals.

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The food-miles on imported organic stuff kinda knocks the gloss off the claim that organic is good for the environment. We need more locally-grown organic stuff.

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Organic's not good for the environment anyway. Organic=lower yields, poorer land usage, more land needed to be deforested for production.

Higher price + bad for environment = I'm not buying!

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Re food miles, look around you -- Japan is a bit of a jungle, with insects and fungi lurking everywhere. So it's harder to grow stuff, especially non-native varieties, without chemicals or aseptic (and tasteless) hydroponics. In that context, imported vs. locally-grown is a bit more of a complex decision.

Of course, if you really wanted to be conscientious, you should eat only stuff that grows easily here: Chinese cabbage, daikon, mitsuba, and seaweed. And of course three sho of rice.

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Organic's great for the environment. Organic = no chemicals, safer food, less risk of cancer caused by food toxins mutating body cells, far superior taste, safer soil, no need to dump tons of nitrogen-based fertilizers that create dead zones in water bodies (ie: Mississippi River).

I'm willing to pay more for safer, better, tastier food = I'm buying!

In fact, if you want to buy organic food in Tokyo, here's some places to go (no one asked or paid me to write this) -

Natural House - Possibly Tokyo's largest organic shop. V.close to Kinokuniya supermarket in 246, Omote-sando.

Crayon House - A smaller organic store/restaurant/baby goods shop not far behind Natural House in Omote-sando. Crayon House has an organic lunch buffet - get in before 11am if you can - it is hugely popular among young mums and their kids.

In Hiroo, head to Natural Mart a small, but well-stocked organic health store.

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I have my doubts that selling organic foods will ever be successful here. Try and find organic half-shaded green tea here...the sales clerks are laughing right into your face. To my J. friends organic food is synonym with religious sect. They will need a lot of convincing.

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Organic food is simply real food, the way Nature intended food to be, and the way food has been grown from the year dot until the 1950s, when nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers began being used mainstream and cancers began to skyrocket.

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To my J. friends organic food is synonym with religious sect.

There's a reason:

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cleo, very good point. Local food systems need to more attention. I agree that importing organic food from other counties negates the positive impacts that organic farming provides. If this entrepreneur was serious about ecology, he'd be working with local growers and developing local systems. It's too easy to look outside Japan for suppliers and make a profit by importing and selling for 2 or 3 times the price, but this sort of nonsense cannot continue forever.

pawatan, you are mistaken. Organic does not neccessarily mean lower yields. I highly doubt you have reputable data to back that up. In fact, small organic farms actually have greater yields. The dominance of industrial agriculture has everything to do with reducing labor, selling farm chemicals and machinery, and very little to do with yields.

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Organic = no chemicals, safer food, less risk of cancer caused by food toxins mutating body cells, far superior taste, safer soil, no need to dump tons of nitrogen-based fertilizers that create dead zones in water bodies (ie: Mississippi River).

Pretty much all these assertions are untrue or unfounded. The assertions abvove about crop yields can't both be right.

Make vegetables cheaper and people eat more of them, and the benefits of increased consumption outweight the detriment of the chemicals. On deadline so I can't give a link, but I'll try to come back to this thought.

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