Lamb becomes part of Japanese culinary culture

TOKYO – While pork and beef prices remain high in Japan, lamb is gaining popularity as a cheaper, healthier alternative.

When The Nikkei was hanging out by a supermarket crate of meat, we spotted a housewife in her 40s who was there to buy steak for dinner. She ended up with lamb steaks.

“I chose lamb because it was cheaper than beef,” she said. “I know the lamb tastes good because I have eaten it several times in restaurants.”

Much of the lamb comes from New Zealand and Australia.

New Zealand leg of lamb steaks cost 208 yen ($ 1.85) per 100 grams, while domestic beef steak cuts cost over 800 yen per 100 grams. Australian beef steak cuts sell for 218 yen per 100 grams, while domestic pork belly is 228 yen per 100 grams.

Prices for wagyu beef remain particularly high. In Tokyo at the end of November, the weighted average wholesale price of A4 grade beef carcasses for sukiyaki – a dish of braised beef, raw vegetables and eggs – was around 2,600 yen per kilogram, up from 50% compared to five years ago.

Beef production is declining due to the calf shortage. Pork prices have remained high since an epidemic of diarrhea spread to pigs nearly three years ago.

Lamb, however, has spent the past two years gaining popularity, thanks to its lower fat and iron content compared to beef and pork.

More and more restaurants are putting lamb on their menus. Some observers say demand is shifting from beef and pork to lamb due to the relative stability of lamb prices.

Supermarkets are following suit. Since June, Aeon has doubled or tripled lamb sections across all of its 396 Aeon and Aeon Style stores in the Honshu and Shikoku regions.

Other supermarkets have started treating lamb as a staple item in recent years. Suffolk Cross Lamb, which is odorless and suitable for Japanese tastes, is gaining popularity.

Japanese meat processors are also hopping on the bandwagon.

Itoham Yonekyu Holdings is considering turning its New Zealand subsidiary, Anzco Foods, into a wholly owned unit to speed up shipments of lamb meat to Japan. The move could take place by the end of the year. Anzco, New Zealand’s second-largest meat packer, processed 2.28 million lambs in 2016 and exported 2,000 tonnes of lamb meat to Japan, up 20% year-on-year former.

Japan has already experienced a lamb boom. Japanese meat producers began importing lamb as an alternative to beef in 2003, following the outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States. In 2005, Mongolian barbecue became a fad, and a year later lamb imports hit an all-time high.

However, lamb consumption declined rapidly thereafter and remained stagnant for the next decade.

Andrew Cox, director of Meat & Livestock Australia, said that unlike the previous Mongolian barbecue boom, this time the consumption of lamb has been slowly increasing year on year, with the meat making its way into Japanese food culture.

According to trade statistics, import prices for chilled and fresh lamb meat in October jumped more than 10% on the year to 919 yen per kilogram.

The supermarket chain Inageya effectively reduced lamb prices by around 10% from the previous year by holding sales.

Kazunori Mitsuhashi, business development manager at MLA, said many Japanese retailers are restricting prices to increase awareness of the lamb.

Meanwhile, game and wild boar meat are also increasingly accepted, although much more gradually. Although few supermarkets sell meat from these animals, it is found in more and more restaurants.

“If we could improve the distribution system [for these meats], we would be able to maintain prices and help stimulate consumption, ”said Yusuke Harada, representative of Ryoshi Kobo, a producer and distributor of processed meat in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

Nikkei editor-in-chief Koichi Kitanishi contributed to this article.

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