Japan's decision to lift restrictions on importing beef from cattle under 21 months of age is good for the U.S. cattle industry, and it's news that Dean Black can take some personal pride in.
Black was a member of an Iowa Meat Trade Mission to Japan and South Korea in December 2012. A cattle feeder near Somers, he is one of Iowa's representatives on the national Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board.
He was part of a panel of speakers who shared cattle production methods, a market outlook for the U.S. beef industry and animal care and handling methods with retail and food service representatives and importers.
Beef Producers Scott Heater, Wapello, left, and Dean Black, Somers, visit with a worker and the manager of a Daiei Supermarket in Tokyo in December 2012. Signage at the meatcase explains the “We Care” U.S. beef and pork promotion coordinated by the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Weeks after the trade mission participants returned home, Japan lifted age restrictions on U.S. beef that had been in place since 2003, following an outbreak of BSE.
Making face-to-face contact with importers in Japan and South Korea is crucial to successfully building U.S. market share in those countries, Black said.
"We met with the major importers over there who import the beef products," he said. "They like to see the producer who makes these products; they like to know where and how their product is produced."
Japan was once America's largest beef importer, but restrictions were put in place following a U.S. outbreak of bovine spongiform encephaolopathy, known as "mad cow disease," in 2003.
Although the Japanese government didn't officially announce the change until Jan. 28, importers were well aware of the likelihood while the Americans were there.
In December, Black said, Japanese importers were looking forward to proposed changes that would lower the age of cattle that could be brought into the country from 30 months of age.
The limitation of importing younger cattle only means "It's hard for them to source cattle at certain times of year," he said. "Now, with it at 30 months of age, we will be able to have a consistent supply to them all year around, and they are really excited about that."
After the official meetings, Black said, the importers shared with their American visitors what their projected budgets are for 2013.
"They were all right in the 40 percent range for increase in imports," he said.
It didn't take a hard sell to convince their hosts to do business with the Americans, Black said.
"When they survey their consumers, they rate American beef as their No. 1 choice for taste and safety. Safety is huge over there, especially in Japan with the earthquake and nuclear disaster," he said.
"We used to be No. 2 in their market for safety in beef; their domestic market was No. 1. But after the tsunami situation, we moved up to No. 1," Black said. "So, it's not a problem of having to sell our beef on quality and safety."
However, the Japanese are price-conscious, he said, and are also dealing with a struggling economy.
Black said he found importers in both Japan and South Korea to be extremely knowledgeable about conditions in the United States, and particularly in the Midwest.
"They know what's going on in the Midwest with the drought and the cattle numbers decreasing because of the drought," he said. "They're almost as informed about what's going on in Iowa as some producers around here."
Both countries import almost 70 percent of the food they eat, Black said, making them extremely dependent on outside markets.
He said he was most impressed by "how concerned they are about where they source their food, that they're going to be able to have good relationships, so they can count on having a source to feed their people."
While some people might discount the value of trade missions, Black is a firm believer.
"Some people may think they're not worthwhile," he said, "but they're a definite asset as a business source. Our economy isn't just in our backyard anymore; it's worldwide. I had my eyes opened more being over there and hearing their questions about our corn and bean production, and our animal production."
Black said he was surprised when trade mission members were briefed by the U.S. ambassadors in both countries to find out how well regarded Americans are in Japan and South Korea.
"About 70 percent of the people in Korea have a favorable view of Americans, and I think Japan is like 87 percent," he said. "A lot of that in Japan has to do with the support we gave during the disaster over there.
"In fact, one of the heads of one of the largest companies over, when they found out some people from the United States were in the building, he made a point to come downstairs and thank them personally. His wife was in the destruction zone and was helped out of there by U.S. forces."
In addition to Black, the trade mission group was comprised of Scott Heater, who raises seedstock near Wapello and is a director on the Iowa Beef Industry Council; Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey; and representatives from the Iowa Department of Economic Authority, the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association and the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Partial funding for the mission was provided by the $1-per-head beef checkoff.