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The Tide Of U.S. Beef Is Turning In Japan

I'm as guilty as anyone. I read the public opinion surveys in the Japanese media citing large percentages of Japanese consumers being concerned about the safety of our product. I got an uneasy feeling when I read only one retail chain had picked up U.S. product, and everyone else was taking a wait-and-see attitude. Even the most optimistic knew it would be a long hard fight to regain our market share in Japan.

However, as difficult as it is to get a clear picture of things in our own country (what with the media tending to understate the positive, overstate the negative, and emphasize the minority viewpoint), it's even more difficult to get a clear picture of true sentiments half a world away.

During a recent taxi ride, my foreign-born driver characterized the situation in an illuminating way: "America expects success too quickly. You fought a war of independence, you struggled for decades to create your democracy yet you expect others to do it in a few short years, without the leadership you had.

"You start a business, and if its sales don't meet expectations one quarter, you demand a change in leadership. You have a fight and you break the most sacred of promises -- marriage vows. As a nation, you've enjoyed so much success you expect it instantly.

"The rest of the world hasn't been so blessed. It understands that when success doesn't materialize instantly it still can be achieved. The terrorists know it, the world knows it -- the U.S. tires quickly. Despite your optimism, you elevate those who preach the negative," he said.

So it is with Japan. Yes, it will be a long hard fight but the doomsayers who claimed Japanese consumers didn't want, and wouldn't eat, our product were obviously wrong.

This week, Yoshinoya D&C, the Japanese chain that rose to prominence with a rice-beef bowl dish made with U.S. beef, announced it would again serve U.S. beef but supply would be limited to 1 million servings the first day, and that they will not be able to offer it regularly because of the limited supply created with the 20-month-age rule. Thus, they'll limit their offering of U.S. beef to the first five days of the next couple of months.

Other outfits are signing on with U.S. beef as well (Read "U.S. Beef Availability Slowly Growing In Japan," also in this issue). The major limiting factor doesn't seem to be consumer demand at this point, but that the supply chain simply can't meet the demand for product.

Are there concerns about the safety of U.S. product? Absolutely. But the reports that U.S. beef had become the equivalent of radioactive waste to the Japanese consumer appear to have been widely overstated.

My cabbie was right that Americans expect success and we get restless quicker than other cultures when things don't immediately go our way. But I think he far underestimates our commitment to succeeding.

Is U.S. beef the preferred choice of the Japanese consumer right now? No. Will U.S. beef regain its lost market share in a short time frame? Probably not. Will U.S. beef once again dominate the Japanese beef market? I wouldn't bet against it.
-- Troy Marshall