Japanese agency hosts buyer’s tour

Seven overseas food buyers joined a buyer’s tour to Tokyo, Kobe and Okayama, sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), from 31 July to 10 August.

Participants visited the Agrifood Expo, a Tokyo trade show featuring a wide variety of Japanese specialty foods. A food processing plant, supermarket, beer and sake breweries, and dairy farm were also on the agenda.
A major part of the tour was business-matching meetings. Similar in concept to speed-dating, 20 Japanese companies took turns for 30-minute meetings with the seven buyers. A recurring theme at each stop was the food-safety measures enacted in response to radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

JETRO’s Kazunori Yamaguchi, director in charge of the agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food department, said the tour was started in response to the declining Japanese population, as the county’s food industry cannot expect growth from the domestic market.

JETRO overseas offices choose the importing companies to participate in the tour, and follow up afterward with a survey. This is the third year for the program, and JETRO and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) plan to continue it. 

U.S. buyers present were Assi Super, a Los Angeles-based Asian supermarket chain connected with Korea’s Lotte group; CleanFish, a San Francisco-based marketer of artisanal aquaculture products; and Walong Marketing, a Buena Park, Calif., marketer and distributor of Asian food products, with logistics centers in five U.S. cities.

From other countries, participants were: Yamato Shoji and Fenix, both Sao Paulo, Brazil import-export companies; Focal Marketing, a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based HRI distributor and franchisor; and Siam Treasure Group, a Bangkok-based food importer-distributor.

Polly Legendre, director of vetting and culinary development for CleanFish, said she had a hard time finding Japanese suppliers who fully understand the marketing importance of sustainability and traceability, though she did pick up a few leads. The company contracts with suppliers to be the sole importer and checks the sustainability data, then markets the product by telling the company’s story— stories that tend to stress the operator’s devotion to the environment, community and product quality over profit. Their first customer and biggest success was Loch Duart salmon.

Legendre said, “We visited Tsukiji and saw all the old men crowding and bidding and thought, ‘How can we tell our story in that; how can we even get in?’ The old way of doing things is all on price at auction. As soon as the product goes to auction, all of the differentiation is gone.”

She said that if Japan wants to focus on the global market, they will have to do it with traceability and sustainability, while in the past the focus was on the domestic market, so they didn’t need to care. Corporations like Marriot and Sodexho, as well as big-name chefs, have begun making corporate mandates for sustainability, and it will be required in order to sell to them.


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