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Japanese seafood market seen peaking as younger consumers like to eat meat.

Japanese Seafood Market Seen Peaking As Younger Consumers Like to Eat Meat

Japan will continue to be the market for fish and seafood, but don't look for any substantial increase in import demand there, warned Yoshihide Uchimura, president of the Japan Fisheries Ass'n.

"Judging from the current market trend, total imports should stay at the present level," Uchimura told delegates attending the recent International Seafood Conference. "The reason is that per capita consumption of fishery products is noted to be less among the younger generation, and price increases for meats are lower than for fish."

Quite a change from 100 years ago, when consumption of four-legged animals was banned for religious reasons. The influence of that ban lasted until the end of World War II, especially in rural areas, and it reinforced other factors favoring high fish and seafood consumption: lack of available land for livestock, and ready access to abundant marine resources.

Japan is still the world's largest consumer of fish and seafood products, at 8,746,000 tons for 1987 (2,290,000 tons imported), but at 71.6 kilograms per capita, its consumption rate has been overtaken by that in tiny Iceland (88 kilograms per capita). Portugal, third in per capita consumption, is way down at 43 kilograms, with Norway a close fourth at 41 kilograms per capita.

Imports have grown rapidly, exceeding 2.4 million tons for 1988, due primarily to the decline in catches by the Japanese distant water fleet since the introduction of 200-mile limits; and to the decrease of coastal fish stocks because of over-fishing, especially for high-value species. Aquaculture may replenish some domestic production, but available sites with calm seas and good currents are limited and pollution is a problem, Uchimura said.

Lobster and shrimp are still the leading imports, followed by salmon, tuna, crab and octopus. The United States remains the largest supplier, at 23%, followed by Korea, Taiwan, Canada and China - with Norway moving up fast. Japanese exports have decreased sharply, especially in high-grade products such as canned salmon and tuna, although there has been a recent jump in sardine exports because of a bumper catch.

Technology transfer, especially for production of surimi, is becoming more common as Japanese companies set up operations in Asian countries with low raw material and labor costs to produce fish and seafood products for the home market. Some companies are doing only primary and secondary processing overseas, leaving the final processing to be done in domestic Japanese plants.

Meanwhile, changes are taking place in the home market. With more women pursuing careers, traditional cooking patterns such as grilling fish are becoming less popular and the demand for a greater variety of processed products has increased - processed items now account for as much as 60% of the fish and seafood market.

There are changes, too, in the traditional maze of distribution involving 760 production district wholesalers selling through 600 consumer district wholesalers. Domestic catch usually goes through production wholesalers like the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, which does an annual volume of 882,000 tons; imports go through consumer district wholesalers, which sell to marketing dealers, which re-sell to retailers.

"Recently, however, distribution outside the fish markets is expanding due to the increase in frozen and processed products," Uchimura said. "The volume sold through fish markets amounts to only 40% of the fishery products imported, and the rest is sold directly to actual consumers by importers." Imports account for only 30% of the volume at the Tokyo central market, and 50% at Osaka.

Restaurants are an increasingly important factor in the fish and seafood market. Japanese spend only 17% of their food budgets eating out, vs. 25% for Americans; but the gap is closing, and restaurant volume already amounts to $147 billion a year. Supermarkets with large displays of a large variety of fish and seafood products are also booming, and they look to imports.

Exporters still have to learn to meet Japanese specifications, but those are based on actual Japanese preferences. Norway and Denmark used to have trouble finding buyers for their salmon because it wasn't pink enough, but developed a pinker strain and sold 8,000 tons to Japan last year. Latin American countries similarly learned to boil lobsters live, and ship them frozen with the legs still on.

"I believe that the domestic demand for fish and fish products will continue to be steady," Uchimura said. "Particularly, demand for medium and high-grade species of fish and shellfish such as sea bream, flatfish, tuna, prawns, crabs and scallops will increase ... Japan will keep its position as the most important market for fishery products in the world."

PHOTO : Yoshihide Uchimura discusses the state of the Japanese seafood market.
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Title Annotation:QFFI's Global Seafood Magazine
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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