TOKYO -- With Taiwan and Australia starting to import Japanese beef again, the country's exports of the meat have grown at a record pace, with the momentum expected to remain for the rest of this year.
Taiwan in September lifted a ban on imports of unprocessed Japanese beef and Australia lifted restrictions in May. This has provided a boost not just to shipments of the product, but also the Japanese government's drive to raise farm exports overall to 1 trillion yen ($8.96 billion). Both countries had suspended imports amid the bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, scare in 2001.
Japan's beef exports between January and June totaled 1,544 tons, up 44% from a year ago, according to Ministry of Finance data. In terms of value, shipments grew 37% on the year to 10.8 billion yen.
With momentum expected to continue through December, the ministry expects the total volume for 2018 to beat the all-time high achieved last year.
Taiwan is the top contributor to the growth, importing 322 tons and replacing Hong Kong as the largest importer. Japanese beef is marketed as a high-end product in Taiwan, and often finds its way into luxury supermarkets, according to a source at a Tokyo meat exporter.
"There are many wealthy people in Taiwan, and they are familiar with how Japanese beef is eaten and cooked," the source said, adding that many consumers had also visited Japan.
While the ban was in place, Australian farmers started raising purebred Japanese "wagyu" cattle and selling their meat under the brand. Outside Japan, wagyu is considered as premium Japanese beef, characterized by its marbled texture and high fat content.
"Interest in wagyu is high," said Takuya Miyagawa of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, arguing that Japanese exporters would see strong demand regardless of competition from the Australian-bred product.
The federation has started to export Hida beef, from Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, to Australia, while meat producer Nanchiku began shipping wagyu from Kagoshima. Itoham Foods' exports to the country totaled about 700 kg in July.
However, further growth in shipments is being held back by a number of issues, including a lack of sufficient processing capacity.
Exports to Hong Kong, for example, require specific processing methods, and only 10 facilities in Japan are equipped to handle them, despite the territory being the biggest importer for many years.
"If you want to refurbish these facilities so that they can handle processing for exports to Europe and the U.S. or Hong Kong, you would have to spend billions of yen," said a source at a processing plant. "That would be difficult for facilities operated by local governments."
Another issue is a ban on beef from cattle aged over specified limits that remains in place in many markets, including Taiwan. Matsusaka wagyu, a high-end brand from Mie Prefecture, for example, cannot be exported to some countries because it requires a longer raising period.
Cattle farmers have called on the Japanese government to negotiate with importing countries to relax their restrictions.
The price of beef in Japan is rising from already high levels, putting the meat even further beyond reach of general customers.
Prices of Kobe wagyu this year reached an all-time high. "The brand recognition is overwhelming overseas, and exports and demand from foreign visitors are growing sharply," said a source at meat distributor Kobe Chuo Chikusan Niuke.
Mouriya, a famous restaurant operator in the city, in May raised course meal prices by an average of 2,000 yen in response to rising costs. Another, Misono, also hiked prices in July. With prices as they are, many of the customers who order Kobe beef are now foreigners, said a restaurant operator.