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Commodities

Japan's wagyu exports sizzle as more Asians dig in

Rising incomes help spice up market but coronavirus looms over consumer spending

The growing export market for Japan's premium beef reflects changing tastes and a growing market for both prime cuts and cheaper parts.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese exports of wagyu in 2019 hit all-time highs on the back of Asia's growing appetite for the premium beef, especially among the region's rising middle-class.

Compared with about a decade earlier, exports jumped nearly ninefold in value and eightfold in volume.

According to the Ministry of Finance, exports totaled 29.7 billion yen ($268.8 million) in 2019, up 20% from the previous year to exceed the government target of 25 billion yen by about 20%.

And while exports remain strong at present, concerns over the coronavirus outbreak have producers and distributors worried about the future.

The biggest importer was Cambodia, which bought 8.67 billion yen worth of wagyu, up 54% from 2018. This was followed by Hong Kong at 5.07 billion yen, up 23%. Taiwan and the U.S. ranked third and fourth, respectively.

Much of Cambodia's imports are believed to be re-exported to China, which still bans Japanese beef.

In terms of volume, exports in 2019 increased 22% to 4,339 tons, topping the government target of 4,000 tons.

Meanwhile, the price per kilogram dipped 1.6% to 6,836 yen on the year, and was down 4% from 7,098 yen three years ago.

The price drop for the third consecutive year reflects changing tastes and a growing market for both prime cuts and relatively inexpensive parts.

Sirloin, tenderloin and other premium cuts used for steak are popular in the U.S., Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where marbled beef is rare. Export prices for these cuts has remained high as most of the beef is rated A5, the highest quality.

But in other parts of Asia, relatively inexpensive parts, such as chuck and rib, are becoming popular as people adopt Japanese eating habits. Rather than thick-cut steaks, wagyu is served thinly sliced or in small chunks, often in Japanese-style restaurants.

Chuck and rib go for 4,841 yen and 4,769 yen per kilogram, respectively -- about 40% lower than the 8,169 yen for sirloin.

Increased competition in the crowded Japanese restaurant market has also helped drive down prices. "Demand for A4- and A3-grade beef has increased over the past year," said an official at meat purveyor Starzen.

The falling export prices are tracking similar drops in Japan. Benchmark wholesale prices per kilo of A4 beef averaged 2,411 yen in 2019 -- a 2.5% decrease from the previous year as domestic consumers shunned the luxury-priced meat.

The ceiling on low-tariff beef exports to the U.S. was dramatically raised from the previous 200 tons in January, while China is expected to lift a ban on Japanese beef this year for the first time in about twenty years.

This has the beef industry excited. "Expectations of an increase in exports are high," said a beef distributor, as exports account for only 2% to 3% of wagyu production in Japan.

But one exporter was not as optimistic, noting that the popularity of wagyu in Hong Kong and the U.S. may be plateauing. In addition to promoting tasty cuts and affordable prices, "we should change our approach to make [wagyu] stand out more, perhaps by using story-based marketing," said Akihide Kitamoto, deputy chief of overseas operations at Starzen.

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