Canada’s cornucopia is a prime source of quality food and agricultural products for Japan. Canadian producers competing in this hyper-sophisticated market full of discerning consumers are playing for a lot more than just…
Sourced from the nation’s seas, prairies, fields and elsewhere, Canadian food and agricultural products are exported all over the planet. And according to Canadian Embassy First Secretary Alex Chen—whose portfolio as a trade commissioner encompasses agriculture and processed foods, fish and seafood, wine, beer and spirits—Japan ranks as Canada’s third-largest export market for agriculture and seafood products.
“In 2021, agriculture and seafood products accounted for approximately 36 per cent of all Canadian exports to Japan for a total of C$5.2 billion, up 6.8 per cent on the previous year,” Chen states. “Our main export categories included canola at $1.6 billion, pork at $1.3 billion, wheat at $666 million, beef at $441 million, fish and seafood at $252 million and soybeans at $239 million.
“If you’re buying vegetable oil, noodles, bread, tofu or miso in Japan, there’s a very good chance that the ingredients came from Canada,” Chen continues. “Our exports also include some innovative food and beverage products, including award-winning wines, craft beers and spirits. And like they are in Canada, organic and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are gaining popularity in Japan, and so are our exports in these areas.”
According to the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, Japan needs what Canada has to offer: it has the lowest rate of food self-sufficiency among the nations in the G7—in decline since the 1970s—and suffers from a large agri-food trade deficit. A lack of arable land and two of the usual suspects—low population growth and an aging labour force—are major factors.
Japanese consumers are famously discerning, increasingly health-conscious and looking for new and interesting products. The Agriculture Trade Commissioner Service team that Chen leads at the Embassy of Canada to Japan works hard to stay on top of trends and ensure that it introduces the very best of what Canada has to offer to Japan. Chen notes: “If there is one takeaway about Canadian food, by the way, it is that we are about quality, sustainability and innovation.”
A Staunch Food Ally
Canada and Japan are natural partners, Chen says, because Canada is a reliable supplier of high-quality products that Japan needs. “We are proud to support Japan’s food security and we appreciate the trust and confidence that Japanese importers, manufacturers and consumers have placed in us.”
He adds that this strong partnership and complementarity form the basis of his interactions with Japanese stakeholders in both industry and government. As a trade commissioner, he interacts with Japanese officials to expand the market for Canadian products here.
This extends to nonfood products as well. To expand the breadth and depth of Canada’s agricultural footprint in Japan, for example, Chen’s team is also proactively promoting agricultural technologies, including robotics, precision agriculture and cellular agriculture.
“Canada and Japan also face some similar challenges—we both have aging workforces in the agricultural and fish and seafood sectors, and we are both working hard to create a more sustainable agricultural system,” Chen explains. “This creates lots of opportunities for joint research and innovation.”
Bringing in the Bacon
Some Canadian food firms have been in Japan for decades and are essential and well-integrated partners in the endless game of food supply and demand. Maple Leaf Foods is one of them—noted for being the first Canadian supplier in the pork industry to set up a Japan office.
Formerly Canada Packers Inc., Maple Leaf Foods began to export frozen pork and beef to Japan in the early 1970s and opened its Japan branch in 1975. Around two decades later in 1997, a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Taiwan (followed shortly thereafter by one in Korea) drastically reduced the fresh imported fresh pork supply coming to Japan and dramatically changed the Japanese market’s pork supply landscape. The U.S. and Canada quickly established themselves as the dominant chilled pork suppliers, while Denmark remained the largest supplier of frozen pork. In 1998, Maple Leaf opened its plant in Lethbridge, Alberta dedicated to serving the Japanese market. The following year, Maple Leaf opened its plant in Brandon, Manitoba with a daily production capacity of 90,000 head.
Headquartered in Toronto, Maple Leaf is a major force in the pork market here and is getting bigger. And in fact, Canada’s overall market share in Japan for chilled pork has nearly tripled over the past two decades from roughly 5,000 metric tons a month to 15,000 a month.
“We sell pork in all categories—chilled pork, frozen pork and frozen offal—as well as sundries,” says Munenari Hiramoto, Maple Leaf’s senior sales manager in charge of sales and marketing. “Chilled goes to the table meat category and shows up on the shelves of both regional and nationwide supermarkets. Frozen goes to food service like tonkatsu restaurants as well as to ham and sausage manufacturers to become the raw materials of ham, sausage and bacon. So even if it does not say ‘Canadian,’ our pork is always part of the meal scene at homes in Japan as processed meats.”
In Maple Leaf’s case, by the way, sundries refers to back fat for sausage and femur bone destined to flavor the broth for tonkotsu ramen.
According to Hiramoto, Maple Leaf has long had a powerful focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the UN in 2015. “We’re actually the first carbon neutral company in Canada’s food industry,” he says. “Our company mission is to be the most sustainable protein company on Earth. We’re now introducing this set of values to the Japanese market as well to answer these new market needs. Many major companies are looking to partner with companies with a record of this kind of sustainability.”
Animal welfare is also becoming a trend in the pork industry globally. Japan may be bit behind on this at the moment, Hiramoto observes, but Maple Leaf, which was the first Canadian company to establish loose housing for all of its sow herd, believes it will become an integral part of the business here.
Maple Leaf is also the biggest supplier of raised without antibiotics (RWA) pork in North America, and the market is growing fast there. “We’re now introducing these products and the concept in Japan along through the above SDGs and following animal welfare concepts,” Hiramoto says. “It could be a bit early to market RWA products in the Japan market, but Maple Leaf is a pioneer in this business in many cases, and being an industry leader and setting food trends are our missions.”
While Maple Leaf doesn’t typically show solo at Foodex, it often does participate as a member of an industry group, Canada Pork, under the umbrella of the Canada Pavilion, which is organized by the Government of Canada’s Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food in partnership with the Canadian Embassy.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic disrupted Maple Leaf’s supply chain. “We had trouble with shipping,” Hiramoto reports. “However, our logistics team worked very hard and we have not had any major issues during the pandemic, while others were unable to deliver product to Japan at some point. Of course our plants in Brandon and Lethbridge worked overtime to maintain our supply to Japan.”
In these pandemic times, breakdowns in food safety and illnesses such as the foot and mouth disease mentioned earlier quite rightfully spook consumers and anyone associated with the production and sale of edibles and potables. The same is true for how food is transported through and processed and packaged in production plants.
That’s where Intralox steps in, supplying food processors with automated, optimized lines having greater throughput, better sanitation, and longer belt and equipment life. That includes the company’s Intralox® FoodSafe™ products and services, which incorporate a preventive approach to invasions by foreign materials and pathogens. Intralox keeps the lines running smooth and clean for producers of meat, seafood and poultry, breads and pastries, fruits and veggies, and snack products.
“Intralox is a world leader in the manufacture of conveyor belts and supporting equipment and solutions for various industries, including the food industry, which has been our biggest market in Japan in the last twenty-five years we’ve been here,” says Marc Bolduc, who worked at Nestlé Foods in Canada, a French food manufacturer called Fleury Michon America and Japanese trading houses prior to joining Intralox. “If you visit a large Japanese food processor, you’ll most certainly see our equipment and belts being used.”
Intralox is headquartered in Louisiana in the U.S. but has strong ties to Canadian and Japanese food companies in their global manufacturing sites, such as Ajinomoto, Nichirei, Calbee, Nippon Ham, McCain Foods, Maple Leaf Foods and Olymel.
Besides the equipment, Intralox offers longstanding expertise in hygienic design and knowledge to support its customers in their domestic and global operations. “We have a team of experienced account managers and customer service representatives that work with our main customers in person or remotely,” Bolduc says. “Our new Innovation Center in Tokyo showcases our equipment and products to customers. The center will also be a meeting place for our customers to meet our specialists to discuss their operational and project needs.”
Intralox participates in the Japan Food Manufacturers Machinery Association event, which typically takes place every year during the first week of June. This is the big show for Japan’s food manufacturers to see what new equipment and solutions are being offered to meet their operational needs. What are their main pain points?
“Japanese food manufacturers are facing some massive hurdles in manufacturing due to labor shortages, energy and cost increases for primary ingredients,” Bolduc points out. “Innovation has also been driven by SDGs that are now key drivers for change.”
Japan has always been a hub for manufacturing excellence, Bolduc notes, and Intralox partners with many local companies in their domestic and global operations. “We are growing our business not only in the food industry but also in other sectors such as logistics/fulfilment centres for the e-commerce industry,” he says. “These have synergies in creating innovation in the areas of product handling and automation in the supply chain.”
Fortunately for Intralox, the recent pandemic has only minimally affected its business. “Since we’re part of the food industry we needed to be there for our customers, but we were working more remotely at times using technology platforms such as webinars rather than regular in-person meetings,” Bolduc observes. “I believe we learned some valuable points on how to be more productive using technology. That being said, we’re happy to be back visiting customer manufacturing locations more frequently again.”
The Agriculture Trade Commissioner Service of Canada is constantly seeking out ways to help Canadian companies find success in Japan and help Japanese importers, processors and food manufacturers source high-quality ingredients and products from Canada. “We also work closely with Japanese companies to help them find investment and innovation partnership opportunities in Canada,” Alex Chen says.
After three years of COVID-related restrictions, the Agriculture Trade Commissioner Service team is excited to be coming back strong for Foodex in early March this year with over forty companies from across Canada.
At Foodex 2023, they’ll showcase products from individual manufacturers as well as regional associations and industry groups. Visitors to the show will be greeted by suppliers of oil, meat products, fish and seafood, maple and honey products, fruits and vegetables, cereals, nutraceuticals, sports and alcoholic beverages, snacks and condiments. The lineup includes functional foods and other health-oriented goods.
Some noteworthy products this year include:
According to Chen, “Major events such as Foodex are key initiatives to support Canadian exporters and raise awareness of Canadian products, but our work continues year-round.” Beyond that, he points out that 2023 is an especially exciting year for promoting Canadian food and beverage products in Japan. While Canada is very active in the food and beverage space in Japan, this message may not be getting through to the average Japanese consumer.
That’s about to change in a big way. “This March, we’ll launch the refreshed Canada Brand in Japan with a tailored and targeted ecommerce and digital marketing campaign to increase the visibility of and demand for Canadian food products,” Chen says. “The campaign is built around a year-long, consumer-facing store on Rakuten Ichiba known as The Canada Fair. The store will formally launch in March and feature close to two hundred Canadian food and beverage products.”
That’s awesome news for companies offering up Canada’s bounty for sale in Japan, and for Japan’s ranks of hungry and thirsty customers.