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organic veggies in Japan

Apr 3, 2002 | 08:18 1 Japanese scandals rich pickings for organic exporters

03 April, 2002 11:38 GMT 08:00

By Tim Large

TOKYO (Reuters) - Ugly vegetables at twice the price.

Organic food has long had a bad rap in Japan, where polished apples and flawless melons wrapped in ribbons adorn supermarket shelves.

Such perfect bounty, grown with agrichemicals and pesticides, is notoriously pricey. If an exquisite cantaloupe costs $20, why pay even more for the gnarly organic version?

Until recently, few did.

But thanks to a string of health scares and mislabelling scandals that have gnawed away at confidence in "conventional" produce, the world's most finicky food market is getting back to basics.

Sniffing big opportunities in Japan's long-cosseted agricultural sector, foreign exporters in particular are finding it pays to ditch the chemicals.

"Organic vegetables aren't at all popular at home," said Thai farmer Sermpong Taptipakorn, who grows spinach, onions, edible burdoch and Japanese radishes in the rolling hills near Thailand's northern city of Chiangmai.

"But demand in Japan looks set to take off, so I switched my fields over."

Taptipakorn was attending an international food fair held near Tokyo recently to seek out distributors, hoping to get his thumb in an organic pie worth $4-5 billion in 2001.

That is less than one percent of Japan's entire food sector, but it represents a four-fold jump from half a decade ago.

"The Japanese are very quality-conscious compared to people in the States, Europe or Australia," said Bruno de Britto, export sales manager of U.S.-based Noon International, which ships frozen organic food.

"With all the recent scandals, we're starting to see stronger demand and we're hoping to see it grow in the next five years."


SCARES AND SCANDALS

An outbreak of mad cow disease in September gutted Japan's appetite for beef and sent shockwaves through the entire food sector.

The government came under fire for its handling of the crisis, and for ignoring a warning last June from the European Union about a possible outbreak of the brain-wasting disease, which has been linked in humans to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). In Europe, vCJD has killed about 100 people.

Mad cow is just one of a slew of confidence-shattering revelations that organic advocates reel off.

In 2000, traces of banned StarLink biotech corn were discovered in domestic food and animal feed made from imported U.S. grain, prompting Japan to slash U.S. corn purchases.

In the same year, a massive outbreak of food poisoning due to insanitary practices at the nation's top dairy producer left more than 10,000 people ill.

Earlier this year, Japan's sixth-largest meat packer admitted to falsely labelling imported beef as domestic to get its hands on government money aimed at helping the local industry to cope with mad cow disease.

Other firms have since been caught in similar scams, undermining faith in the entire food-labelling system.

"In the past, people trusted major Japanese companies," said Akira Hanawa, president of the Japan office of Genetic ID, a firm that tests for genetically modified organisms in food.

"Now they feel big companies are only chasing profits."


BRAND APPEAL

Since September, organic supermarkets and restaurants have sprouted up across the country, while ordinary shops have started stocking organic produce alongside cheaper conventional vegetables, many imported from China.

Foreign exporters, for their part, have rushed to get their produce certified under the Japan Agricultural Standard law.

That law, which came into force last April, says land must be free of artificial fertilisers and chemicals for a minimum of three years before produce can be designated organic.

"This is very big chance for us," said Atsuo Fuji, a certification manager at Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association, which verifies that food produced at home or abroad is what it claims to be.

"I'm hoping organic will become a kind of brand."

In a country where a decade of stop-and-start recession has done little to erode sales of expensive designer goods, such branding could prove critical.

If you want Japanese consumers to go bananas over organic bananas, exporters say, the trick is to market them as the Louis Vuitton of the vegetable world.

"In Europe and the U.S., you're really catering to people's health needs," said Juan Campos, representative director of Daabon Organic Japan Co Ltd, which ships organic coffee, chocolate and fruit from Colombia.

"In Japan, the way to sell organic is to sell it as high-quality products. You really have to say, this is the sweetest banana you'll ever eat."

Daabon ships about half of the 840 tonnes of organic green coffee that Japan imports yearly, a figure Campos expects to swell to 1,680 tonnes in 2002.

"It's an ideal market," he said. "It's big and it's growing. It's allowing us to position ourselves at a very early stage when there's not much competition." Reply With Quote
Apr 6, 2002 | 12:43 2 These are markets that the Chileans are going after, or attempting to go after. On a recent trip there, we talked with several fruit/vegetable growers who were forming groups to access these markets. The domestic market will not pay the premiums for organic food (primarily because they can't afford it) and producers there recognize the market potential and are looking for ways to tap into it.

They are ideally suited to growing organic crops as they are not inundated with lots of pests. They have the Andes to the east, desert in the north, Antarctica in the south and are surrounded on three sides by ocean. Certainly when we were there in January - the height of summer - there weren't much in the way of bugs around.

Once they get their act together, they will be aggressively seeking out markets such as those in Japan. Reply With Quote