Fukushima rice bound for U.S. next winter, 1st local product freed of import ban

The Fukushima prefectural government is considering resuming shipments of locally produced rice to the United States as early as the winter of fiscal 2022. It is giving rice top priority among the 35 products that have been removed recently from an import ban list imposed by Washington after the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Plant. The prefecture is set to partner with the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) group and Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in negotiating business deals with U.S. retailers and food-related companies, expecting to greatly expand marketing channels for local rice through shipments to one of the world's biggest consumer markets. The local government has agreed on the course of action in talks with the Fukushima chapter of Zen-Noh or the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, which is the JA group's marketing and supply arm, as well as JA Fukushima Chuo-kai, a local branch of the policymaking Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, and JETRO. After the nuclear mishap, the proportion of prefectural rice sales for household consumption declined while that for the foodservice industry and other business use increased. But the novel coronavirus epidemic has led to a slump in business use, sending rice prices into a tailspin. Against that background, the prefectural government is placing greater emphasis on rice than on the 34 other products in the belief that it will be effective in improving the supply-demand balance of local rice if it restarts exporting to the United States. The prefecture intends to focus on sales efforts in the U.S. market on two varieties of rice -- the local "Ten-no-tsubu" (heavenly grain) brand and nationally cultivated "Koshihikari" brand. Exports of rice harvested in Fukushima Prefecture in 2020 totaled about 237 tons, with Malaysia taking the largest volume of 78 tons, followed by Hong Kong with 72 tons and Singapore with 68 tons. In resuming exports to the United States, the local government expects to start with a few tons a year initially with a future plan to ship more than 100 tons. Fukushima will team up with the JA group for business deals with U.S. retailers. They have already kicked off negotiations with a supermarket chain operating more than 10 outlets in California, seeking to increase the number of stores selling Fukushima rice. As for promoting sales to the restaurant industry, the prefecture will depend on JETRO's Los Angeles office for a plan to provide Japanese restaurants and other potential customers with sample rice for use on their menus. The United States is the largest market abroad for Fukushima products in such fields as alcoholic beverages, processed food and craftwork in terms of export value. "There is a good possibility the United States, which is a promising market, will become a major buyer of our rice," said an official of the prefectural government's section in charge of strategy for promoting local products. "We will do our best to bump up exports by partnering with related organizations." Challenge: how to develop sales channels Fukushima is faced with the challenging issue of how to secure and expand its marketing channels, with stiff competition expected from many other prefectures that are already selling rice into the U.S. market. The United States is the fourth-largest overseas market for Japanese rice. There are prefectures with a track record of rice exports there, raising the possibility of crops from latecomer Fukushima competing with other Japanese-grown rice. Also standing in the way of Fukushima rice are low-priced products grown in vast tracts of U.S. farmland, which are widely available in the country. The prefecture plans to commit itself firmly to developing sales channels for Fukushima rice. Publicity-garnering efforts being considered include holding tasting events to introduce the positive aspects of the staple, such as high eating quality, safety and cost. (Translated by Kyodo News)