TOKYO Japanese meat purveyors Itoham Foods and Starzen are preparing to export up to twice as much wagyu beef to counter the impact of a stagnant home market while satisfying the global appetite for the high-end product.
Itoham will increase its number of meat-processing centers to six from four. The plants will conform to U.S. sanitary standards, which are stricter than those for Japan and other Asian markets. The company plans to develop demand by producing thinner cuts of wagyu than previously.
The Itoham Yonekyu Holdings subsidiary currently ships around 470 tons of wagyu to Taiwan and western markets, a figure it plans to elevate by 50% in 2019.
Meanwhile, Starzen has formed an operational tie-up with Adirect Singapore, a multinational meat distributor. The Japanese company will modify how wagyu is processed based on local demand and cooking data from Adirect. Starzen plans to double exports to Singapore in fiscal 2018 starting April, from a year earlier, under this collaboration. "We aim to forge more business alliances of the same type and further expand exports," said Motoyasu Hasebe, president of the group's exporting arm, Starzen International.
Starzen aims to double overall exports by 2020, compared with 2017.
Similarly, Japan's NH Foods -- which has subsidiaries and offices in 11 markets including Hong Kong, Taiwan and the U.S. -- will bolster wagyu exports by intensifying sales efforts to local meat processors and consumers.
This rise in activity by wagyu dealers comes as the Japanese market shrinks. There are roughly 43,000 cattle breeders in the country, down 40% over the past decade, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The wagyu cattle count has also shrunk by more than 10% over the past five years. One calf fetched an average of 780,000 yen ($7,315) last year, up 50-60% from five years ago, putting prices in record territory.
The higher prices are spreading through the distribution chain. One kilogram of A4 wagyu, a premium cut, sold between 2,300 yen and 2,400 yen on average at wholesale in Tokyo at the end of January, a 40% rise in five years.
"For domestic consumers, wagyu has become an inaccessibly premium product," said an Itoham official. Supermarkets and other retailers in Japan are inclined to decrease shelf space for the high-end meat.
Meanwhile, there has been more demand from those in Asian countries with high economic growth. In the West, the premium beef continues to attract steak lovers. Last year, Japanese wagyu exports jumped 40% on the year to an all-time high of 2,706 tons. Japan wants to boost wagyu exports to 25 billion yen by 2019, equivalent to around 4,000 tons.