Pacific pact spurs Canadian ag sales to Japan as U.S. watches

Strip steak with mushrooms. (Photo courtesy Canada Beef Inc.)

Winnipeg | Reuters — At the Canadian embassy in Tokyo last month, beef promoters flew in a chef from Canada to cook New York strip steaks for hungry Japanese importers and restaurant suppliers.

The annual Canadian beef buffet reception attracted 126 people, up sharply from the usual 30 to 40.

A trade deal among Pacific nations — called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — took effect on Dec. 30 among the first six of 11 member countries to ratify it, including Canada, Japan and Australia.

CPTPP’s real prize, Canadian exporters say, are reduced Japanese tariffs for beef, pork, wheat and canola oil. Japan is the world’s third-largest beef importer and seventh-largest wheat buyer, often buying top-quality supplies to meet consumer demand for soft, white breads and beef raised on grain not grass.

For Canada, following a year of volatile relations with the United States and China, the deal offers a rare opportunity to seize market share from the United States, which withdrew from the pact after President Donald Trump took office.

Canada’s opportunity illustrates the risks of Trump’s drastic trade actions. Farmers are key Trump supporters, but they have been among the hardest-hit from a trade war with China.

U.S. beef packers such as Tyson and National Beef Packing also stand to lose, while Canadian grain exporters Richardson International and Viterra may gain.

At the Tokyo beef buffet, enthusiasm about Canadian beef transcended borders.

“The interest was as high as I’ve ever seen,” said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, who has been visiting Japan since the 1980s. “This new agreement is one of the most significant opportunities we’ve seen since the original NAFTA (North American Free Trade) agreement was signed.”

Among those sampling Canadian beef were buyers from the Japanese units of Costco, Cargill and JBS, Laycraft said. Costco declined to comment and JBS did not respond.

In a statement, Cargill said it advocates for U.S. participation in CPTPP so that exporters and consumers do not miss out on its benefits. Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company wants to see a bilateral pact between the U.S. and Japan “to ensure we remain competitive.”

Sensing opportunity, Alberta packer Harmony Beef made it a priority last year to secure Canadian and Japanese approvals allowing it to sell to Japan. Now Harmony is planning its first shipment next month of 52,000 pounds of fresh and frozen beef.

“We put pressure on and fast-tracked the Japan approval,” said Harmony’s director of marketing Cam Daniels. “They are an affluent society that is willing and able to pay for the best.”

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is Canada’s second-biggest beef market after the U.S. Even so, Canada’s sales to Japan amounted to 27,000 tonnes from January through October 2018, about what U.S. exporters ship there in one month.

Lower tariffs boost any product’s competitiveness in Japan in the long run, but short-term, preferences for specific brands as well as a country’s supply capacity, are also factors, said an official at Japan’s farm ministry, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Canada, the world’s sixth-largest beef exporter overall, is the second-biggest shipper after the United States of grain-fed beef, which commands a premium over beef from grass-fed cattle. Japan’s 38.5 per cent beef tariff fell under CPTPP to around 27 per cent, with further reductions coming.

The U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, urged the Trump administration last month to cut trade barriers to Japan, the biggest export market for U.S. beef.

“The U.S. beef industry is at risk of losing significant market share in Japan unless immediate action is taken to level the playing field,” the association’s president Kevin Kester said in a statement.

Other commodities are also in play.

Annual U.S. wheat sales to Japan of three million tonnes may fall by half over time unless the U.S. negotiates lower tariffs in upcoming bilateral talks, said Steve Mercer, vice-president at U.S. Wheat Associates, which promotes the country’s wheat exports.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative, asked about exporters’ concerns, referred to the negotiating objectives that it outlined in December, which included reducing Japanese tariffs.

Japan typically buys 1.5 million tonnes of high-quality Canadian wheat annually, but that volume may approach three million tonnes over the next nine years, predicted Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada.

Canadian wheat sales may start to pick up in April, once Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which buys foreign grain, recalculates its re-sale price to mills, said Richardson’s assistant vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region, Adrian Man.

Japanese purchases of Canadian canola oil, used in cooking, already show signs of rising. Sunora Foods shipped four containers there in the past month, its biggest monthly sales to that market in recent memory, said president Steve Bank.

For pork, tariff reductions may allow Canada to surpass the United States in Japanese market share, said Kazuhito Yamashita, research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“The U.S. could be left behind,” he said. “So the U.S. must be hasty to reach an agreement.”

— Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent covering the agriculture and mining sectors from Winnipeg; additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo.

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