TOKYO -- As prices for pork and beef remain high in Japan, lamb is gaining popularity as a cheaper and healthier alternative.
When The Nikkei hung out in front of a supermarket's meat case, we spotted a housewife in her 40s who was there to pick up some steak for dinner. She ended up with lamb steaks.
"I chose lamb because it was cheaper than beef," she said. "I know lamb tastes good because I have had it several times at restaurants."
Much of the lamb is coming from New Zealand and Australia.
New Zealand leg of lamb steaks go for 208 yen ($1.85) per 100 grams, while domestic beef round steak cuts are over 800 yen per 100 grams. Australian beef round steak cuts sell for 218 yen per 100 grams, while domestic pork belly is 228 yen per 100 grams.
Prices for wagyu beef remain particularly high. In Tokyo at the end of November, the weighted average wholesale price of grade A4 steer carcass for sukiyaki -- a braised beef, vegetables and raw egg dish -- was around 2,600 yen per kilogram, up 50% from five years ago.
Beef production is declining due to calf shortages. Pork prices have remained high since a diarrhea epidemic spread among pigs nearly three years ago.
Lamb, though, has spent the past two years gaining popularity, thanks to its low-fat, high-iron content compared to beef and pork.
More restaurants are putting lamb on their menus. Some observers say that demand is shifting from beef and pork to lamb because of lamb's relative price stability.
Supermarkets are following suit. Since June, Aeon has doubled or tripled the lamb sections at all of its 396 Aeon and Aeon Style stores in the Honshu and Shikoku regions.
Other supermarkets have started handling lamb as a basic item over the past few years. Suffolk Cross Lamb, which gives off no odor and suits Japanese tastes, is gaining popularity.
Japanese meat processors are also jumping on the bandwagon.
Itoham Yonekyu Holdings plans to turn its New Zealand subsidiary, Anzco Foods, into a wholly owned unit to accelerate shipments of lamb meat to Japan. The move could come by the end of the year. Anzco, New Zealand's second largest meatpacker, processed 2.28 million lambs in 2016 and exported 2,000 tons of lamb meat to Japan, up 20% from a year earlier.
Japan has had a previous lamb boom. Japanese meat producers started importing lamb as an alternative to beef in 2003, following the outbreak of mad cow disease in the U.S. In 2005, Mongolian barbecue became a fad, and a year later lamb imports reached a record high.
However, lamb consumption declined rapidly thereafter and remained stagnant for the next decade.
Andrew Cox, a manager at Meat & Livestock Australia, said unlike the previous Mongolian barbecue boom, this time lamb consumption has increased slowly year by year, with the meat working its way into Japanese food culture.
According to trade statistics, import prices of chilled and fresh lamb meat in October jumped more than 10% on the year to 919 yen per kilogram.
Supermarket chain Inageya has effectively lowered lamb prices by about 10% from the previous year by holding sales.
Kazunori Mitsuhashi, business development manager at MLA, said a lot of Japanese retailers are holding down prices to boost awareness of lamb.
Meanwhile, venison and meat from wild boar is also gaining wider acceptance, though much more gradually. While not many supermarkets sell meat from these animals, it is finding its way into more restaurants.
"If we could improve the distribution system [for these meats], we would be able to hold down prices and help boost consumption," said Yusuke Harada, a representative of Ryoshi Kobo, a producer and distributor of processed meat in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.
Nikkei staff writer Koichi Kitanishi contributed to this article.