Latitudes, Longitudes

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Latitude in Key West, Florida: 24.33 degrees North

Latitude in Kaohsiung, Taiwan: 23.03 degrees North

I’ve officially arrived in the tropics of Taiwan. And the birthplace of Taiwan’s agriculture, as well as the first use of cattle imported from mainland China.

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”~ Henry David Thoreau

Cattle played an important role in traditional village life in Taiwan society, enjoying substantial function, economic value, culture and historic meaning. Farmers used cattle carts to transport goods, and as a vehicle.Taiwan’s development, including agriculture, progressed from south to north, and west to the east. As the cultivated land increased, the number of draft cattle used for plowing and other jobs increased rapidly–but the people couldn’t imagine killing and eating the power resource upon which their subsistence was completely dependent (Chen). Many elderly people still see cattle as partners in work and agriculture, not food, and refuse to eat beef due to husbandry beliefs.

The widespread tradition of eating beef in Taiwan, therefore, happened recently, I learned from Dr. May Chang, CEO of the Foundation of Chinese Dietary Culture. In fact, the Japanese occupation brought many Japanese influences to Taiwan, including architecture, transportation and eating the tractor. Er, I mean eating beef.

Dr. Chang curates the Foundation’s extensive library of Taiwan’s food culture. (Wonderful place–library lover that I am, I could have stayed all day, and I couldn’t read most of the books!)

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Kind of like a contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno–tons of lovely books on food and culture, and I can’t read any of them.

Taiwan, like the U.S., is a paternal society where the eldest male child generally accepts responsibility for aging parents. Thus, when he marries, he brings his wife to live with his parents, or they traditionally live together in a two- and later three-generation household. This arrangement carries certain advantages for all three generations–providing care and respect for elders; providing childcare and cooking support for young parents and providing multi-generational structure and direction for young children. Traditionally, the elder woman does most of the cooking in the household. These women may follow a lunar calendar to celebrate cultural events, which have traditional meals or foods, depending on the family’s heritage and origin (Fujiian or mainland China, for example).

In engaging Dr. Chang in a discussion about cultural traditions involving food preparation and celebration, I’ll admit I was indulging in one of my personal interests: the interaction of food and culture. But I also had an ulterior motive: finding out if ways exist to incorporate the relatively recent addition of beef to Taiwan’s diet into household or societal celebrations.

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Here’s an idea. Many Taiwanese celebrate Lidong, or the beginning of winter, by eating nourishing, warm foods containing red meat. Those familiar with the Chinese concept of yin-yang will recognize the natural duality of hot/cold coming into play here and understand the concept of eating hot, hearty food containing red meat as complimentary, or dynamic, to the beginning of cold winter months. While the traditional meat for these celebratory dishes is not beef–it could be. It seems to this novice that this could be an opportunity to introduce beef into a customary meal and tradition.

(Non-random) photos of the day:

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We visited the Tou-nan Town Farmers’ Association and a Holstein feedlot. I mentioned in a previous post that most of the domestic beef supply comes from male dairy calves. This feedlot is an enterprise between the farmer and the Association to feed Holsteins in this covered facility, then market the beef at a retail store and a restaurant in town. In the retail store, a prominently displayed sign showed 20 or so chemical compounds the meat was tested for (and found negative, of course) including ractopamine. But customers want that assurance.

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Ration at the feeding facility includes multiple local byproducts, including potatoes, carrots, and roughage of various types. The green bit you see is Napier grass, chopped and fed wet.

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Lined manure holding pit. Here, it is carefully processed, stored and spread on Association members’ fields.

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Great meal of Holstein beef at the restaurant associated with the feedlot.

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A happy cow holding a piece of beef welcomes you to the restaurant. Cartoon figures are wildly popular in Taiwan and widely used in marketing.

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Though Mountains Divide and Oceans Are Wide

I know the small world of agriculture in the U.S. resembles a family, with everyone seemingly linked by only two or three degrees of separation.

I didn’t know that intimacy applies all over the world.

The great folks at the American Institute in Taiwan took some time to visit with me yesterday. Basically, AIT is the American embassy in Taiwan. Why, you may ask, (I did) don’t we call it the American embassy in Taiwan, if that’s what it is? Welcome to the wide, wide world of diplomatic relations.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is a non-profit, private corporation established shortly after the United States Government changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on January 1, 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act (PL 96-8) of April 10, 1979, authorized the continuation of “commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” It also provided that “any programs, transactions, or other relations conducted or carried out by the President or any Agency of the United States Government with respect to Taiwan shall, in the manner and to the extent directed by the President, be conducted and carried out by or through the American Institute in Taiwan.” The Department of State, through a contract with the Institute, provides a large part of AIT’s funding and guidance in its operations. Congress, in passing the Taiwan Relations Act, also assumed an oversight role with respect to the Institute’s operations. If you want to read more like this (I plagiarized this shamelessly–could you tell?), please visit AIT’s Website or do some additional research on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations. It’s frankly a fascinating topic, especially for history addicts.

While receiving a thorough briefing from AIT, I had the honor to meet the AIT Director Christopher Marut, a foreign service diplomat with extensive experience in U.S.-Asia relations. He is, basically, the U.S. ambassador to Taiwan (see above). He stopped by for a few minutes and our conversation centered on what consumers want in Taiwan, and if there are lessons here for marketing beef to U.S. consumers. We agreed that in some ways, Asian consumers light the path for marketing to U.S. consumers, with demands for transparency in production methods and safety procedures as well as convenience and attractive packaging trends.

Mr. Marut’s agriculture staff proved equally knowledgeable, making for an extremely productive meeting overall.

Why did this experience teach me about how small the world is? Emily Scott, AIT’s deputy chief of the agricultural sector, graduated from Colorado State University. And, like me, she has Dr. Tom Field to thank for a great education–he was her undergraduate adviser in the Animal Sciences program, and my master’s adviser as well. (Tom, does this mean you’re getting old?)

Taiwan depends on imported food. They currently have a 32 percent self-sufficiency rate for ag products. While the government works daily to increase that, it may never be much higher, due to challenges including limited arable land and urban encroachment. Agriculture makes up about 2 percent of Taiwan’s GDP and roughly 5 percent of the working population. Taiwan has a globally competitive manufacturing and tech sector and, with a land mass the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, is the sixteenth most densely populated country in the world. Since 2010, Taiwan’s population grew less than 0.2% and the fertility rate stands at 0.9, which is the lowest rate ever recorded here. Government estimates say the population will reach a maximum roughly 23.4 million between 2020 and 2025. Even with population expected to shrink in the future, the country will always depend on imported food for its people. It’s a win-win that we enjoy a booming trade relationship with Taiwan–the U.S. is Taiwan’s third largest export market for goods.

However, with this in mind, it may be especially difficult for the Taiwanese people to separate the issue of food self-sufficiency from food security. While any country strives for food self-sufficiency, in a country like Taiwan, food security may depend more on relationships with other countries than it does on local agricultural production–particularly in nutrient dense beef, which in Taiwan is really only a byproduct of dairy production.We all know that in a global economy, relationships matter–in Taiwan, that wisdom takes on critical meaning to the people.

I heard a lot from both AIT and the National Animal Industry Foundation folks about the situation regarding beef access and its relationship to local pork production and access issues. (A politically charged topic not for this time and place, but buy me a beer, or better yet, some sake, sometime and we’ll discuss it.)

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Thanks to the National Animal Industry Foundation for a productive meeting about Taiwan agricultural production. To my right, CEO Michael Chung-Ginn Lee and his staff.

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The Eisenhower Fellows of Taiwan (An extremely active and wonderful group! And I got my very own sign!) hosted supper last night and I heard (mainly from Mr. Sean Lee, an Eisenhower Fellow who hangs out with some crazy U.S. beef addicts who once ate three, 32-ounce monster steaks in a sitting! Hope I get to see this power eating in action while I’m here, I may find a new spokesman for U.S. producers!) how much Taiwan loves U.S. beef. Truth is, in three days here I have already heard that over and over. We have a committed market for our products over here, even if the access road challenges us sometimes. Heartfelt thanks to EF Association in ROC Chairman Mr. Shui-teh Hsu for hosting supper. At 82 years young, he had a long and distinguished career in public service, and now dedicates some of his time to Eisenhower Fellowships (when he’s not advising world leaders and winning at golf, that is!).

One more thing…

Meat Consumption in China and US

As you can imagine, Avian Flu concerns Taiwan greatly. Farmers produce quite a bit of poultry here (by “quite a bit” I mean about 355 million broilers a year), and in China (China’s population leads the world in meat consumption and while pork leads the way, poultry consumption grows annually). The H7N9 strain appears not only one of the most contagious, but also the most lethal to humans, ever. (Honest admission: Those who know me remember that my son underwent a life threatening infection in January. It wasn’t related to Avian Flu, of course, but since then I cannot wash my hands frequently enough, and I’m probably thinking about H7N9 more than I should now.) With H7N9 in China, you can imagine just how seriously the government of Taiwan takes the responsibility of detection and control here–as evidenced by an experience I had in the Taipei airport. There, all arriving passengers are screened for fever by an electronic heat monitoring system. Passengers walk toward a monitor, which shows elevated temperature as a red halo around the body image on-screen. I asked what would happen if a passenger appeared with a fever and they told me that they would be examined by a doctor and possibly quarantined for a week. (Geez, that would have cramped my Fellowship style! Is it just me, or did it suddenly get warm in here?)

 

Thank you, Mr. Chen

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I didn’t know I would have the honor of meeting Mr. Chen, purveyor of the ShiDong Beef House, yesterday. In fact, I think I surprised him when I began asking questions about the meat in his chiller and the cowbell hanging from the ceiling at the ShiDong Market. But once he got started, he was on fire.

We wandered around the fresh food market, located (appropriately) in the ShiDong neighborhood, on ShiDong Road, as an introduction to how many Taiwanese housewives buy food–locally, daily and fresh. My wonderful host (and the planner/facilitator of my schedule here in Taiwan) Ms. Sandia Lee, of the Eisenhower Fellows Association in the Republic of China, took us there. She didn’t expect to get into a lively conversation about beef, either.

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Mountains of fresh veggies and fruits at the ShiDong Market.

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Sorry, Jo Peep. Don’t think I could fit this one into my suitcase for you. Did Mr. Chen display this as a conversation piece, or do some people have a gigantic soup pot?

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Just pulled from the tank, and ready for your dinner table! Thanks for posing for an over-enthusiastic tourist, fish guy!!

But, as we wandered through the fresh veggies, live fish tanks and live pens of chickens (I promise I didn’t touch any chickens, mom. And I held my breath as we walked by), we came across a fresh beef case. And there I found Mr. Chen, and the beef checkoff logo, plain as day, on a package of what was obviously sliced, prime beef.

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There’s the beef check, right beside “We LOVE U.S. Beef.” And Mr. Chen loved U.S. beef, indeed! Even though he most definitely didn’t love the price.

So, I asked him, “Excuse me, sir, where did you get that U.S. beef?”

And we were off to the races.

He talked for about five minutes straight, while Sandia valiantly tried to wait for him to breathe, so she could translate. I leaned over to her and whispered, “I’m dying to know what he is saying!” She grinned.

This went on for quite a while. Mr. Chen had a lot to say. And I loved every minute.

He talked about the consistent quality of U.S. beef, especially when compared to our competitors (can you guess who our competitors are, dear readers? If you’ve been following along, you know them from our previous posts). He talked about U.S. quality grade, availability, price (oh yes, he talked a LOT about price). He talked about how U.S.beef is so good, restaurants will mix U.S. beef fat trimming with Australian lean, to make it taste better (What a great idea! Hey, McDonald’s, have you ever thought of that?!). He talked about how that wasn’t fair, because he couldn’t do that in his shop! And…finally..he talked about beta agonists.

Sandia looked slightly distressed at his words, and looked up the translation of beta agonists on her smart phone. I nodded and smiled. “No worries. I wondered when he would get to that,” I told her.

Turns out, he was grateful that the our governments worked through establishment of an MRL (although he didn’t call it that) and he hoped that the supply would be better. And, he added once more for emphasis, the price would come down!

Thank you, Mr. Chen for making my first day studying beef in Taiwan interesting and lively. Thank you for your honesty, your patience and for your passion about beef–U.S. beef, of course.

From the ShiDong market, we moved to the Night Market, where you can buy anything. I mean it, the huge market sells everything–from shoes to underwear to all manner of meat on sticks, dumplings, soup, fried chicken, fresh fruit cups, Polish cake, and lots of other foods I didn’t recognize. We perused what seemed like hundreds of food stalls, and made our selections from supper. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many photos, mainly because it was too dark, but also because there were so many people, I couldn’t get my camera out of my pocket. Just kidding, but there were a LOT of people there! And on the train back to the hotel!

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At the market: Homemade rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves. I had one for lunch at the Palace Museum Tea Room. Excellent!

A Plug for the National Palace Museum

Ru pottery

Priceless Ru Ware in the shape of a lotus flower. The Ru kiln produced glazed pottery for a short period during the years when Northern Song emperors Zhezong (1085–1110) and Huizong (1110–1125) ruled. No more than 60 intact pieces from the kiln were known before the discovery in 1986 of the original kiln site, which is in the village of Qingliangsi, in Baofeng county, Henan province. This site has yielded at least 37 more examples (22 of which are intact).

The overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 set the stage for the formal establishment of the Republic of China in the following year. Based on the principles of democracy, the possessions acquired by the imperial family went public to be shared by all. This set the stage for the establishment of the National Palace Museum, located inside the Forbidden City in Taipei. The museum itself has a rich history, too detailed to copy here, which I encourage you to research a bit if you have time. A knowledgeable tour guide arranged by EF Fellows Association brought the museum to life for us, as we wandered among the roughly 2,000 pieces the museum has room to display, out of more than 690,000 pieces in total. We spent about two hours on the tour, and had to move along to other locations, but if you visit here, please leave at least a day to look at the treasures here. From the Bronze Age to recent history, the collection will amaze you. We saw an 8,000-year-old necklace, priceless delft blue Ru Ware, Ming ceramics and so much more.

Random photos of the day:

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My first beef noodle in Taiwan (hopefully not my last!). Just the right amount of spice, with tender, succulent pieces of slow-cooked beef.

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Serenaded at lunch with lovely music.

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We had supper at the Night Market. Frog eggs?? Wow! (Not really, silly, it was milk tea instead!)

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Random chicken parts, anyone?

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Waterfall outside the Taiwan Folk Art Museum in Beitou. Built in 1921, the Museum was originally the “Jia Shan Hotel,” a hot spring hotel built in the Japanese occupation era. The two-story main building and its annex, Tao-Ran House, with a total floor area of around 2,500 square meters, stand in a quiet spot in Beitou, surrounding by a garden of lush green. It is one of the largest freestanding Japanese all-wood houses in Taiwan. In 1998, the well preserved buildings were designated a historic site by Taipei City Government. Starting in 2002, restoration work began. The makeover took five years and the buildings were eventually reopened in early 2008.

 

Dive Deep, Swim Far

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The flag of Taiwan carries a natural element–the sun. This drew my attention from the moment we entered Taipei.

Because I found the Japanese people’s connection to the natural world fascinating (and refreshing), the meaning of this stylistic sun interested me. Turns out, each of the 12 points on the star represents a month of the year.

The colors on the flag represent the Three Principles of the People–an important concept in Taiwan’s history. Blue represents democracy. Red, nationalism. And white, the star, which we’ve already linked to the months of the year (an indirect reference to seasons?), represents the people’s livelihood.

The Three Principles of the People, a.k.a. The Three Great Principles, originated with the political ideology of Chinese Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen. The fact that the flag links socialism with the year and the people’s livelihood is interesting to me, but probably a topic for someone smarter.

(Warning: editorial comment: If you are reading this and you live in the U.S., you may think you know what socialism is, but I submit that we’ve thrown the word around pretty liberally in the past few years. It is a simple, objective concept really. In the U.S., for example, the concept of public lands, public resources like libraries and museums, and certain roads and highways, have roots in socialism. While I am a capitalist, I thank goodness for the tenants of socialism when I drive, read or hike. My apologies to readers who are now scratching their heads wondering why I’m wasting space on this.)

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If you go to the Web site for Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture, located under the Executive Yuan, and click on agricultural products, you’ll see them arranged by season. Anyone who has been patient and forgiving enough to follow my blog so far may see the immediate connection I saw. A government Web site organized by agricultural and natural seasons? Reminds me of Japan! Or Japan reminds me of Taiwan! (It’s all in your POV, right?) Kumquat and jujube join this list of key agricultural products. (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a kumquat, but the word makes me giggle. I’m certain that I’ve never had a jujube, but I found several waiting in my room, thanks to Davis Wu at USMEF Taiwan. Davis put lots of fruit and snacks in my room! Now that I’m writing this blog and adding photos, I know what the heck those little furry fruits on a stem are! They are so cute! Now, do I peel it like a kiwi, or…?)

Taiwan’s population currently rests at about 23.3 million. In comparison, Tokyo’s metro area boasts about 35 million, when you count it all together. GDP in Taiwan is $902 billion US. The official language is Mandarin Chinese (I can tell the difference between Japanese and Mandarin now that my ear seems tuned to it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to say this six months from now, but for now, the two sound very different to me, with Mandarin sounding much more guttural.)

Taiwan’s political system does not fit traditional models. The President of Taiwan leads the government as head of state, followed by the vice president–both positions must get the popular vote to serve, in elections held every four years. This sounds familiar, but from there it differs significantly. The President appoints his cabinet including a premier; the premier heads the Executive Yuan.  A Legislative Yuan also exists, with 113 seats. The President appoints the premier without needing approval by the Legislative Yuan, and the legislature can pass laws without regard for the President, as neither the President or the premier have veto power. Thus, negotiation between the two branches might not happen if the two are of opposing parties. Other yuan include judicial, control and examination.

I’m set to begin meetings on Monday–today I will tour the National Palace Museum, which holds many of China’s national treasures and the largest and finest collection of Chinese art in the world. The core of the art collection once formed the imperial collection in Beijing. The museum also holds a collection of Buddhist artifacts inherited from the Forbidden City. In fact, the vast collection requires constant rotation for public viewing. I heard last night the museum will be moved to a new, larger location in the future.

“Be not the slave of your own past … plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience, that shall explain and overlook the old.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Thank you Davis and MEF for the beautiful flowers upon arrival–and all the goodies, too!

 

Everyday Beauty

As I spend my last few hours here, I want to leave you with a Japanese philosophywabi sabi. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teachings of impermanence, suffering and emptiness. Wabi sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect (Juniper, 2003, The Japanese Art of Impermanence).

While these concepts may sound negative to you, realizing that life is transient, living with an expectation of joy, while fully acknowledging and rejoicing in imperfection, makes for incredible liberation of spirit. Mindful living encourages you to venerate the beauty you find every day, especially in those things you may often overlook, or find familiar.

If you are too busy to breathe, and often find yourself without moments in your day to close your eyes and reflect, perhaps you need to know more about wabi sabi.

I’d like to share a few images of things that touched me in this way over the past few weeks.

zen garden at RyoanJi-Dry_garden

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tokyo night view

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Peace.

Dewa Mata

I’m a little sad today to leave the friends and wonderful experiences I’ve had in Japan. In no particular order, I offer you some of my observations about the beef market here. Again, my heartfelt thanks to the Eisenhower Fellowship program for this amazing experience.

Safety is the price of entry

Sometimes cattlemen tell me that we’ve done enough work on beef safety—that we know as much as we’re ever going to learn, that we need to stop investing in safety research and telling our safety story. As a matter of fact, I had several folks tell me this exact thing right before the government declared non-0157H7 STECs as adulterants. Whoops.

You can argue about politics and trade negotiations that swirled around the BSE issue, here and in other countries, but severe trade restrictions in the Japan market for a decade hurt American business irreparably. I don’t mean that we cannot regain the market (better than it was), I mean that American companies and American beef producers lost critical opportunities in those years. Consumers here demand safe beef for their families, just like at home, and we must continue to give them the safest product in the world. My learning in Japan is that we can never, ever, ever (am I really quoting Taylor Swift?) shift our focus from providing the safest product possible. I mean, like, ever.

Just for Japan

Frankly, some Japanese women (who make more than 90 percent of food purchasing decisions) feel a little…well…squishy about U.S. beef. What do I mean? They say it comes from a long way away. They wonder if U.S. producers care for animals, or profit (Are the two mutually exclusive??). They wonder if U.S. producers really care about what they do, and the product they produce. Consumers here want the option of choosing a U.S. beef product made in America with the discerning Japanese consumer in mind. Producing beef that is “just for Japan” has marketing power with this audience.

Individualized Choice

Product differentiation plays a critical role in this market. Remember for about 6,000 years, rice has set the standard here for product differentiation (Tamayaka, 2001). With literally hundreds of brands to choose from (I heard a lot about Koshihikari rice and I’m going to try it when I get home), consumers here talk about brand loyalty passionately. They use brands their parents loved, brands their families love, and they carry strong opinions about differences in taste, regions, grains, recipes and uses. In an earlier post, my photo of the milk case, with nearly 30 brands of milk staring back at me, taught me that American products must have clear differentiation from others—and I don’t just mean our Aussie competition. We would be well-served to explain not only our difference from our competitors, but also to offer many choices, through the use of brands, to Japanese consumers. As one consumer panelist said, “Brands indicate the producer cares enough about the product to put a special mark on it.” (That was the translation of what she said anyway. Is it kosher to use quote marks when quoting someone whose words had to be translated for you? I’ll have to ask the AP hotline that question.) Consumers here like to have an active choice, and even a package, that fulfills the needs of the individual, including price. Let’s give them lots of American beef products, from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and even in the same meat case. Giving Japanese consumers more choices through American beef products (see Why the World Matters) means we share our bounty with them. We need to offer multiple, differentiated products they just cannot get at home.

Shopping as Entertainment

Many Japanese women work as homemakers, and they take that job extremely seriously. In a consumer panel, I heard from a woman who cooks different homemade dinners, at different times, for her children and husband, according to their individual tastes and timing. When asked, she replied that she enjoyed her job making a home and raising her family, and she would do the best job she could to keep them happy and nourished. With that attitude in mind, I learned that Japanese women approach grocery shopping as both a critical responsibility and an enjoyable experience. In fact, several members of the panel mentioned that they shop about five times a week and they look forward to it every day. One of the packer reps I visited with, who has marketed beef for many years here, said having and making choices in the grocery store entertains folks, even as they fulfill the responsibility of nurturing their families. In comparison to other areas of the store, the meat case may be boring our customers. With convenience store retailers offering 100 new products each month, Japanese consumers demand something new and innovative when they shop. Grocery shopping should be more like Disneyland, and less like drudge, he said, so customers rush to the meat case to see what’s new, what recipes they can try, what fun they can have. Let’s make meat shopping fun. Entertain Japanese consumers, and they will reward you with purchases.

Customized Convenience

Even though most women stay home, or work part-time jobs here, the number of women choosing to stay in the workforce after having children grows annually. Many women shop via the Internet – placing an individual order at 4:00 and accepting delivery at home by 7:00 p.m. Not only does this save them from walking to the store and hauling heavy bags, it allows them to order from the office and be ready to cook when they arrive home. Therefore, in addition to fun, convenience is key—but convenient products must still feel “homemade” to moms and wives. I heard over and over that women want to take it home, put it into their own dishes, and serve it like they cooked it fresh. No take out buckets or wrappers on the dinner table. Convenient beef products with a homemade feel that also contribute to a Disneyland in the meat case (am I asking for too much here?).

Beef Can Be Fresh, Seasonal, and JIT

We don’t often think about beef as seasonal. Actually, we don’t think about many products as seasonal in the U.S., given we can find almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world, for a reasonable price. But given that the Japanese consumer wants to celebrate seasons with appropriate food choices (see Fresh Thinking), perhaps celebrating a seasonal component of beef, or a just in time aspect that discusses our ship time as time to “ripen” or age to perfection, or promoting beef around an appropriate holiday has potential for us.

Packaging and POS Matter

When shopping the meat case here, I immediately noticed the lighting and the packaging. Particularly in domestic beef meant for more special dishes (shabu shabu or sukiyaki for example), stores trim beef into consistent sizes and shapes, place it carefully in the package and add a garnish for color. Meat managers display packages in neat stacks, aligned and sorted. Japanese women like to see this kind of care put into packaging and display—to them, it indicates that farmers cared that much too. Sloppy arrangement, bloody packages, inconsistent trim with odd sizes or shapes decreases desirability. Sounds simple, but little things mean a lot here and the attention to detail indicates much farm-to-fork product quality in the Japanese mind.

Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, USMEF, the American ambassador to Japan, President Obama or the Buddha.

Random Photos of the Day:

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Warm thanks to the EF Fellows of Japan, for hosting a good-bye dinner featuring river eel last night. The eel was excellent–and the lively, intelligent discussion coupled with one of the best red wines I’ve ever tasted–priceless.

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Yesterday’s Bento Box lunch

Ginza Apple Store

This one is for my Dad and brother. Disneyland, indeed!

 

Silky Success

view from 36th floor Sumo building

One great success story in branding meat comes from my visit with SC Foods (Sumitomo Corp.), with its brand “Silky Pork” founded in 1994, and a sub-brand “Yongenton Silky Pork” in 2011. (As an aside, the view of Tokyo Bay from the 36th floor of the Sumitomo building, above, will knock your socks off! If Tokyo gets the 2016 Olympics, Sumitomo executives will be able to look right into the Athlete’s Village, which will be located on “reclaimed” land, or one of the growing number of man-made islands off the coast of Japan, built largely from waste. Back to our regular message…) To understand why even the name of this product makes a lot of sense in this market, you must first understand the Japanese preference for a soft mouth feel when it comes to meat. You almost have to chew it (or gum it, sort of), to understand it, but A-5 Waygu beef has it, most iterations of tofu have it, some of the kale products have it. Texture in food carries a lot of influence, and the name “Silky Pork” imparts exactly the right level of chewability for a desirable meat product here.

The company realized early on (nearly 20 years ago) that a branded product offered additional differentiation in a rapidly expanding market, which allowed for additional profit potential. Smithfield (a comparatively small packer at the time) agreed to partner on the new product development, since several of the larger packers they approached weren’t interested in producing a branded product. Smithfield was fully integrated–farm to fork–which appealed to SC Foods (and to the Japanese consumer, see earlier posts). As a result of this integration, Smithfield offered a full gamut of information (again, farm to fork) that allowed SC Foods to “tell the story” of where Silky Pork came from. This integration let SC Foods help Silky Pork consumers feel the love behind the production. The brand rolled out in Japanese packaging (no English)–it was a uniquely Japanese brand from a Japanese company. This was, and is, important, because the Japanese consumers firmly believed (and largely still do) that the best quality of nearly anything comes from Japan.

Silky Pork made Sumitomo a pioneer in selling chilled pork into Japan. It led the way for additional meat branding (multiple American pork brands now compete skillfully with more than 400 domestic pork brands in Japan), it opened the door for consumer research in stores, and allowed a smooth intro into foodservice through yet another partnership with existing Tonkatsu restaurants, increasing the feeling of familiarity to Japanese consumers.

I believe beef industry companies could learn from pork’s success in Japan, as we rebuild and retool our offerings to Japan. Every cloud has a silver lining. While every story I hear about the 2003 case of BSE and its effect on the Japanese beef market makes me cringe, I’ve begun to think that a “do-over” in re-introducing Japanese consumers to U.S. beef may actually have a silver lining–allowing us to strategize carefully about our future direction, and to decide how much investment we need to make to fully realize profit potential in international markets.

CGC Black Canyon rollout

At the CGC Black Canyon brand rollout, with USMEF’s CEO Phil Seng (to my left) and folks from National Beef, including Peter Michalksi, Vice President, International Division (to Seng-san’s left).

One thing I’ve heard in each of my packer meetings with JBS, Tyson, National and Cargill (and several other importers and distributors) this week: middle meats have growth potential in Japan. While we definitely sold some middle meat here prior to BSE, the potential at this point in time may be larger than ever. How to capture the heart, mind and discerning eye of Japanese women (who make most of the buying decisions here, just like in the U.S.) remains our challenge and our opportunity.

Random Photos of the Day:

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Tokyo Tower at night

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You can watch TV on the stairway leading up to the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) building.

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Onward! To Taiwan…and beyond!

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We’ve ridden the famous Bullet Train (Shinkasen) several times, and I’m going to tell you–it goes really fast (in technical engineering terms), with a max speed of 200 mph. You never feel the speed once you get going, though, you only know you’re flying by the view from the window. In 2007 (its busiest year), the line transported 353 million passengers. For comparison, the U.S. population currently stands at about 316 million.

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I miss my dog!