July 14, 2011


Australian beef could avoid food safety repercussions in Japan



While there could be a knee-jerk reaction against beef consumption in Japan, the reputation of Australian beef for being safe should sustain exports, according to Melanie Brock, regional manager for Japan for marketing concern Meat & Livestock Australia Ltd.


Reports of contaminated beef from cattle raised near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have dominated news in Japan this week and come amid heightened awareness of radioactivity in food and a number of safety scares involving green leafy vegetables, tea and water over recent months.


Following the initial shock, consumers could become more discerning about the country of origin of the meat, its place of origin and its traceability, leaving Australian exporters unscathed.


Australia accounts for two-fifths of the beef consumed in Japan. Annual shipments to Japan of about 350,000 boneless tonnes of beef are valued at AUD1.7 billion (US$1.8 billion) and account for almost 40% of Australian beef exports, making it the industry's biggest export market. Japanese production meets another two-fifths of local demand, with the US supplying 12% and New Zealand 7%.


"Our main game is to raise consumption of beef in Japan including Australian beef, which has a reputation for safety, taste and affordability," said Brock. "This beef scare undermines people's confidence about a lot of things. People are just very mindful about what food they are buying."


Food safety concerns have been stoked in Japan after five people died and almost 100 were hospitalised from coli poisoning in April, even as in Europe nearly 50 have died since May in cases believed to be associated with a shipment of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt into the continent to germinate sprouts.


Richard Rains, chief executive of privately held Sanger Australia Pty Ltd., which accounts for almost 10% of Australian beef exports to Japan, said the radiation contamination, though in only a miniscule amount of Japanese beef, could turn consumers away from all beef.


However, Australian beef has a good safety reputation and enjoys high confidence levels in Japan with, for example, all beef in McDonald's hamburgers served in Japan are sourced from Australia, he said.


As a result, Australian beef could avoid any backlash that might emerge against domestic produce, he said.


Demand for grain-fed beef in Japan is already soft with a drop-off in recent exports in favour of cheaper cuts eaten by consumers at home rather than in restaurants, he said.


Australia benefited from sharply increased demand from Japan and South Korea after these nations banned the import of US beef following the discovery of some cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, in the US and Canada from late 2003.

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