A Full Plate

Canada ups game at 2018 Foodex

Fifty-four Canadian companies exhibited at this year’s Foodex Japan trade show, far eclipsing the 35 firms that took part in the 2016 event, according to the latest figures from the Embassy of Canada to Japan. This underlines both the strength of Canada’s domestic food and drink sector, and the potential of Japan as an export market.

“Fifteen of these companies have come to Japan for the first time and we are getting such a positive response because there is a strong feeling that the Japanese economy is getting stronger and that there are opportunities for these producers,” said Noboru Shimizu, trade commissioner for Agriculture and Processed Foods at the Embassy of Canada to Japan.

“And the reaction has been impressive as well,” he said. “Obviously Japanese suppliers and consumers know about Canadian maple syrup and some of our other famous products, but they are also interested in innovative new foods that we produce.”

Health foods were attracting a good deal of attention, Shimizu told The Canadian, along with some quirky products — such as a range of maple syrups infused with coffee, bacon, or yuzu flavours, although it was not immediately clear that they would find a sufficiently strong following in Japan to make this a viable export market.

Slice of the market

According to the most recent full-year statistics that could be provided by the Embassy of Canada to Japan, Canada was Japan’s fifth-largest supplier of total agri-food and seafood products in 2015, with a 5.6 per cent share of the total. Canadian suppliers provided 9.4 per cent of the frozen pork and 37.5 per cent of the fresh pork consumed in Japan, along with nearly 16 per cent of the soybeans and about 25 per cent of the non-durum wheat.

By value, Japan’s processed food imports were valued at C$45.2 billion in 2015, with Canada providing 4.1 per cent of that total, while agri-food and seafood exports to Japan were valued at C$3.8 billion.

Some of the products of Riverside Natural Foods Ltd.

For a number of companies taking part in this year’s Foodex Japan is a critically important export market.

“We have been coming here for 23 years, which makes us the joint-longest attendees, and Japan accounts for about 20 per cent of our export market,” said Sylvain Lalli, president of Alleghanys Maple Farms Inc., based in the Québec town of Saint-Pacôme.

Getting it right

“Over the years, we have discovered that Japanese people place a lot of emphasis on building up a strong and healthy business relationship with those that they feel they can trust,” Lalli said. “For us, that is an ideal situation because we have a similar attitude and it is effective for both sides.”

Lalli supplies a range of products to the Japanese market, including both organic and regular syrups.

“One big difference about doing business here is that the Japanese expect the product to be perfect — and it is very important that we provide items that meet that very high standard,” he said.

Japan was Alleghanys Maple Farms’ first overseas market, which it entered in 1995. Since then and based on the company’s success here, it has entered 30 foreign markets, including South Korea and Singapore.

“To be successful in Japan, there has to be trust going both ways and we always make sure to respect the culture of doing business here,” said Michele Bond, vice president of the company. “And when we eventually retire, coming to Japan will be the business trip that we will miss most, I think.”

The representatives of Alleghanys Maple Farms Inc. From left, Michele Bond, vice president; Marie-Pier Lalli, sales; and Sylvain Lalli, president.

Making connections

For Marie-Michele Le Moine, manager of the retail division of Fruit d’Or Inc., the largest annual food trade show in Asia is an opportunity to reconnect with existing clients, forge new contacts and gain a better understanding of this unique market.

“It is so different here than anywhere else, so anything we can learn about the market, about consumer trends and what potential partners are looking for is extremely valuable,” said Le Moine.

The company provides cranberries and blueberries in categories, including in bulk, as nutraceuticals and as organic products under the Patience Fruit & Co. label.

“We sell ingredients to more than 50 countries, but Japan raises the bar for expectations and standards, which is a positive thing because it makes us work harder at being a better supplier.

“Quality and safety are so important here and consumers can be picky, so we have to be really attentive to the details.

“Here, it is really important to get the right importer for a retail line and that is one thing that we aim to do this year,” she said. “If we can do that, I believe Japan could grow to account for 10 percent of our total sales, up from around 3 percent at the moment.

“Achieving that is about meeting the right people and having all the right pieces in the right places at the perfect time,” she said. “And that takes time, but is worth it in the end.”

Natural difficulties

For some companies, however, Japan is proving a very tough nut to crack.

“This is the third year that we have been here, and we have learned that this is an extremely difficult market,” said Peter Mulherin, vice president of sales for Ontario-
based Riverside Natural Foods Ltd.

“This should be a great market for our ranges, which are healthy snack foods geared towards children as an alternative to sugary treats, but it appears that the organic market is not sufficiently developed here yet,” he said.

“I know it takes patience to access the Japanese market and we are hopeful that we will be able to arrange a distribution deal with Costco, but if that does not work, I am not sure we will be back again next year,” he added.

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