US exporters are hoping to persuade Japanese consumers that American lamb is a quality, even niche, product, as they seek to compete with Australian and New Zealand rivals.
Japan had closed its doors to US sheep meat in 2003, following outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.
In the intervening years, Australia and New Zealand became the largest exporters of lamb to Japan. In 2016, Meat and Livestock Australia reported a 12.9% year-on-year increase in Australian exports of sheep meat to Japan, while New Zealand lamb exports to Japan from October 2016 to September 2017 were up 36.9%.
As Japan imported a record US$169 million in sheep and goat meat in 2017 and consumption was expected to rise in 2018, the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) said it was confident that the US could reclaim sales, even if initially it was a small market share.
“Japan is one of the world’s top importers of lamb. If the US can capture just 0.5% of Japan’s imported market share, Japan will be one of the top export markets for US lamb muscle cuts,” Ralph Loos, director of communications for USMEF, told GlobalMeatNews.
He added that, while the US export industry was not large enough to displace Australia and New Zealand’s position, it could attract new customers “by offering a very high-quality product that hasn’t been available in Japan for many years”.
Loos said he believed US grain-fed lamb would appeal to consumers who had not previously enjoyed lamb, thanks to its “milder and less gamey” flavour profile and texture. It also offered greater cooking options through being available in larger, thicker cuts, he said.
Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASIA), meanwhile, said US lamb could gain a similar high status to that of US beef.
“US lamb commands a premium in restaurants and retail sectors in the American market and we anticipate that [to happen] in the Japan market as well,” he said.
Four ASIA member firms have signed up to attend an industry event in Japan on 28 November, where USMEF will organise an educational seminar on sheep meat for chefs, importers and other food industry professionals.
According to Japan-based B2C meat sales firm The Meat Guy, lamb is “hitting an era of popularity”, aided by growing demand from Muslim tourists, as most imported lamb is halal.
USMEF’s Loos added that US lamb producers were ready to capitalise on the halal market as its suppliers were well equipped to meet this demand.