The Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains Agricultural Trade Offices (ATOs) in U.S. embassies and many consulates. The ATOs provide market information and help to coordinate promotions for U.S. exporters. SeafoodSource talked with the new director of the ATO in Osaka, Japan, Alexander Blamberg. Before taking up the post in August 2021, he was agricultural attaché at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, where he focused on trade policy, working to expand exports of U.S. livestock, dairy, and poultry products to Japan.
SeafoodSource: What are your priorities coming into the post? Are there any new initiatives that you intend to try?
Blamberg: Japan is a highly developed market. It’s the fourth-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports overall, and it’s the third-largest market for U.S. seafood products. Still, it’s a very dynamic and competitive market. One of the most-significant changes to the market in the last few years has been Japan’s implementation of new trade agreements – the CPTTP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership], an agreement with the European Union, and of course, a bilateral agreement with the United States.
The agreement with the United States, the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement, entered into force on 1 January, 2020. So, it’s been a little over two years now. That agreement reduced or eliminated tariffs on a wide range of agricultural products. Seafood was not part of that agreement, but still, the existence of the agreement refocused attention from Japanese industry on agriculture and all the products we have to offer. So with that in mind, one of the initiatives that all of the FAS offices in Japan have undertaken is to promote awareness and understanding of that agreement among Japanese businesses. Trade agreements are very complicated documents – a lot of HS codes, tariffs, etcetera, so we tried to break down the agreement into easily-understandable documents and briefing papers. We created a briefing page on our website where interested stakeholders can look up how the tariffs affect their products, or how rules of origin have changed, or things of that nature. And we provide briefings to our U.S. stakeholders so that they understand there are new opportunities here in Japan that might be worth pursuing.
As an office, we’re really trying to promote that we have an agreement with Japan, and it is making our products more competitive.
SeafoodSource: What special challenges do you see at this time?
Blamberg: Obviously, COVID-19 has made activity-planning extremely difficult for us over the past two years. The ATOs in Japan – both in Tokyo and Osaka – have had to postpone many activities, including promotional activities, trade shows, travel … and we’ve not been able to welcome travelers from the United States, including USDA and state representatives, or industry representatives.
That being said, in 2021, the ATOs hosted U.S.A. pavilions at three major trade shows in Japan: the supermarket trade show, FOODEX Japan, and FABEX Kansai. These shows were all well-attended under the circumstances. Obviously, there were COVID protocols in place – restrictions on handing out samples, etcetera. Since American companies could not come to Japan to represent themselves, they were often represented by their in-country Japanese representatives. Despite the challenges, we were able to hold the shows, we had a lot of visitors, and we achieved good projected sales numbers. So, that’s something we were able to do, even within the COVID environment.
One positive development from the pandemic is the FAS offices in Japan have really focused on strengthening our digital presence. I already mentioned USDAJapan.org – in December 2020, we completely revamped the website and reorganized how the information is presented to turn it into an information portal for U.S. exporters who are currently exporting to Japan, or are interested in exporting to Japan. We’ve designed it in a way that no matter what stage of the export you are in there’s something for you – whether it’s researching the market, identifying a Japanese buyer, understanding Japan’s import regulations, or learning more about the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement. In addition to that, the ATOs in Japan have also partnered with Tastemade Japan to produce a series of 12 online videos.
Going forward, we will be launching a new social media account, with a new logo and new branding here in Japan. It’s called “GochisoUSA.” We’re looking at things like Instagram, as well as Twitter, and possibly a dedicated website. USDAJapan is very much business focused – focused on U.S. exporters and also Japanese importers – while GochisoUSA is designed more for Japanese consumers.
SeafoodSource: What kind of help is available from the ATO for seafood exporters?
Blamberg: The ATOs in Japan offer many types of support to prospective and current exporters of seafood from the U.S. to Japan. Again, USDAJapan.org is a good first stop for anybody interested in the Japanese market, to learn more about the market, see what kind of buyers there are here in Japan, and understand the ins and outs of the export process – what regulations there are and what certificates are required.
The ATO doesn’t provide funding directly to exporters, but USDA and FAS headquarters does allocate funding through the Market Access Program (MAP) and other programs to trade associations, cooperatives, state and regional trade groups, and small businesses to help share the cost of overseas marketing and promotional activities.
Of course, interested U.S. exporters are welcome to contact us at any time. If it’s specific to seafood, I would encourage them to reach out to ATO Osaka. The ATOs in Japan divide our responsibilities by commodity, and seafood is covered out of ATO Osaka. Also, if exporters encounter any difficulty in exporting or getting their product through customs, they should contact us as well.
And when international travel becomes possible again, we really hope that U.S. exporters come to Japan to meet with us. We’re happy to introduce potential buyers. We would love to have U.S. companies participate in our trade shows and exhibit in our U.S.A. pavilions. Once the pandemic situation gets better, we hope we can restart some of those activities. And of course, there’s the annual International Seafood Show in Tokyo.
SeafoodSource: A 2019 Tokyo U.S. ATO office publication, “Recommended Food and Beverage Trade Shows in Japan," included a previous U.S. agricultural trade officer’s assessment that U.S. exhibitors appeared to be focusing on commodity items, while perhaps missing an opportunity on consumer-oriented and/or branded U.S. products. Do you also hold this view? Does it apply to seafood items too?
Blamberg: That report was actually quoting an earlier report. That statement goes back to 2019, just about three years ago. At that time, ATO Osaka was in the process of assessing trade shows in western Japan – identifying ones that seemed like good opportunities for us to host U.S.A. pavilions.
Since then, in the last three years, we have hosted U.S.A. pavilions at FABEX Kansai, which is the largest food and beverage trade show in western Japan. And this past year, we had exhibitors promoting U.S. rice, potatoes, sausage, bacon, cookies, cakes, and waffles. We didn’t have any seafood companies this year, but would love to have some in the future.
Again, with international travel, it’s difficult for U.S. companies to actually come to Japan, so in the past two years, we’ve been working very closely with the industry associations and cooperators that have representatives here in Japan.
On the seafood front, the state and regional trade groups have representation here in Japan – so, WUSATA, Food Export Northeast and Midwest, and SUSTA for the Southern United States. Also, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) has an office here in Japan. So, we’re looking for opportunities to coordinate with them to promote U.S. seafood, at least under the pandemic circumstances. But once travel is possible, we hope that U.S. exporters can come to Japan and exhibit with us at these shows.
Japan is a very important market for consumer-ready products. The way FAS organizes our trade data is we have bulk, intermediate, and consumer-oriented products. And among the Asian markets, Japan is the leader in consumer-oriented imports from the United States, including processed products. So that’s an area where we try to focus our promotions.
SeafoodSource: The newest Exporter Guide for Japan, prepared by ATO Osaka, was released on 20 December. Can you talk about what it includes?
Blamberg: This report is a general guide to exporting to Japan and understanding the market. So while there’s nothing specific to seafood, the information in the report is definitely relevant to seafood exporters. In addition to general information about the market, we reported on an increase in frozen-food manufacturing and sales in Japan – we think in part resulting from the pandemic, with more people eating at home, looking for quick, easy-to-prepare meals. We’ve also seen a lot of retailers increasing their shelf space for frozen foods at their supermarkets and convenience stores. So, we’re hopeful that may open the door for U.S seafood exporters to sell more frozen processed products here in Japan.
Photo courtesy of Alexander Blamberg/U.S. Agricultural Trade Office