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Food & Beverage

No sizzle for premium pork and chicken as restaurants close

Japan's 'platinum' pigs forced to sell at supermarket prices

These pigs raised in northern Japan are normally sold under the Hakkinton "platinum pork" brand, but demand for the pricey meat has fallen. (Photo courtesy of Takagen Seibaku)

TOKYO -- When Makoto Takahashi thinks of his pigs nowadays, he sighs.

"We spend time and money raising them," said Takahashi, whose company in the northern Japanese city of Hanamaki sells premium cuts under a brand that means "platinum pork": Hakkinton.

But while his piglets have not stopped growing, the market has, with premium Japanese meats from Takahashi's pork to free-range chicken suffering as the coronavirus pandemic shutters restaurants and hotels.

"All of the tasting events we had scheduled at department stores were canceled," he said. "Demand from restaurants and hotels is also down. It's been a struggle."

Cuts of Hakkinton loin sell for about 400 yen ($3.70) per 100 grams -- about twice as much as the pork typically sold at supermarkets in Japan. Takahashi's company, Takagen Seibaku, has chosen to focus on other outlets where its pork can fetch premium prices.

The pigs are a cross of breeds including Berkshire, which grow slowly but produce high-quality meat. Typical farms ship pigs at about six months of age, but Takahashi's are fattened for seven months. Their feed includes rice grown locally in northern Japan's Iwate Prefecture and domestic corn.

"Because we raise them slowly, their muscle tissue is fine-grained, making the meat soft to the palate," he said.

With his usual customers halting orders, Takahashi made the painful choice of selling Hakkinton pork stripped of its premium brand -- and premium prices. His company struggles to make a profit at these levels.

Online sales, a channel that the company had little used before, provide another outlet. But demand from department stores and restaurants has dropped so much that sales are down about 30% from a year earlier, according to Takahashi.

Raised in northern Japan's Akita Prefecture, Hinaidori chickens are considered one of the country's top three chicken breeds (Photo courtesy of the local growers' association.)

Hinaidori Shokuhin, an Akita Prefecture-based vendor of the namesake breed of chicken, is also feeling the impact of the coronavirus.

Hinaidori is considered one of Japan's top three chicken breeds and must be raised in a free-range environment for at least 150 days. This takes far longer than broiler chickens, which ship in about 50 days.

So the prices are higher, with shipments going mostly to restaurants and department stores. Restaurant orders have started trickling in since the state of emergency ended, but demand has been slow to recover.

The company's sales have been down 30% to 40% on the year. Hinaidori Shokuhin signs annual contracts with supplying farmers and thus "cannot say we no longer need the products even if demand is gone," a representative said.

To cope with the pandemic, the company has begun online sales, offering Hinaidori for about 20% less than usual in hopes of enticing customers.

Such efforts have not reversed the sales decline, however, with its inventories reaching double usual levels. The company's freezers have been filled to capacity.

"I have never seen the freezers this full," the representative said.

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