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Business trends

Wheat-fed Canadian pork catches on in Japan

Imports at record levels as familiar taste trumps US corn-fed hogs

Wheat-fed Canadian pork looks and tastes like Japanese pork and is easier to process.

TOKYO -- Canadian pork is gaining popularity in Japan, thanks to wheat-based feed and breeding that produces meat that suits Japanese tastes, as well as its high meat yield.

Japan's imports of Canadian chilled pork are at record levels, up 150% over the past decade.

"More supermarkets have been handling Canadian pork since last year," said Shoji Nomura, Japan Marketing Director of Canada Pork International.

Last March, Japanese retail giant Seven & i Holdings added Canadian pork to its new fresh food brands. Membership warehouse retailer Costco and other sellers started handling Canadian pork as well.

Canadian pigs are raised on wheat-based feed like their Japanese counterparts, and the meat tastes and looks like Japanese pork, unlike cornfed U.S. pigs. Canadian farmers are also breeding pigs whose meat suits Japanese tastes.

Canada, which exports roughly 70% of total production, is flexible in meeting the demands of export partners, unlike the U.S., where pork is mainly consumed domestically, said a representative of a trading house.

HyLife Group Holdings, in which Japanese trading house Itochu has a stake, produces "Herb Sangenton," a specialty brand of grass-fed pork for Japan distributed by Prima Meat Packers.

NH Foods and Starzen also launched new Canadian pork brands. Japan imported a record 137,000 tons of Canadian pork in 2016. Canadian pork exports to Japan jumped 27% from a year ago in the January-November period of last year.

Although the wholesale price of Canadian pork is a bit higher than that of U.S. pork, "it can be offset by meat yield," said a representative of Itochu's Food Company unit.

Restaurants and supermarkets can reduce overall costs, due to Canadian pork's higher meat yields compared to pork imported from other countries. "Some say that fatty Canadian pork is easier to cut when packing at supermarkets," Nomura said.

The industry is proposing new recipes in an effort to boost pork consumption. Canada Pork International is hosting PR events across Japan.

In December, Canada Pork International introduced a recipe using Canadian pork at an event hosted by recipe website operator Cookpad. Participants reacted positively, saying the pork tasted better than they had expected, and had no odor.

HyLife Group is also focusing on "pulled pork," a cuisine that pot-roasts pork Boston butt and other cuts. In October, it solicited original recipes with Instagram-based recipe website operator Ouchi Gohan.

Pork imported from Canada and other countries is increasingly popular in Japan due to higher prices of domestic pork. In December, the average wholesale price of the benchmark pork carcass was 576 yen ($5.17) per kilogram, up 12% from the average of the past five years and 7% compared to the previous month.

Pork production has been sluggish in Japan, since a diarrhea epidemic spread among pigs nearly three years ago. Some 9.34 million pigs were raised in Japan last year, down 4% from five years earlier.

"There have been no outbreaks [of porcine epidemic diarrhea], but has not been eradicated, either," said a pig farmer in Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan.

According to data from the Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corp., domestic pork accounted for 47% of pork handled by wholesalers in the second half of 2017, down 9 percentage points from a year earlier.

"While consumers tend to prefer domestic pork, they are increasingly shifting to imported pork due to higher prices and a fall in supply," said a representative of the Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corp.

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