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Trade mission to Japan nets opportunities for California tomatoes

FRESNO, CA -- Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission, and a delegation of several growers and shippers of California tomatoes recently went on a trade mission to Japan, the second one this year. The mission proved to be productive in expanding opportunities for California tomatoes in the Japanese marketplace, according to Mr. Beckman.

In an interview with The Produce News Aug. 15 after returning from the previous week's trip, Mr. Beckman was very upbeat about the prospects for increased trade with Japan, including strong possibilities of getting California tomatoes into Japanese supermarkets. Historically, California tomatoes going to Japan have been used almost entirely by foodservice operations.

Last year, California tomato shipments to Japan took a sharp dip "because of some menu changes that took place," Mr. Beckman said. "The marketplace is very much driven by new menu additions" and, similarly, is significantly affected when a menu item using California tomatoes is dropped.

"So, for example, when McDonald's dropped its McGrand Burger, which was the primary burger in the [Japanese] marketplace that had California tomatoes on it, our sales declined significantly." As a result, although last year "actually started strong for us," he said, "it then tended to evaporate."

Since then, McDonald's has "added additional menu items" using California tomatoes, and "sales have rebounded," he said.

The trade mission earlier this year "sought to reintroduce California tomatoes in the marketplace" and also to "expose the realities of the Japanese market to growers and shippers." That trip "brought about a number of promotional opportunities," Mr. Beckman said. "We had one promotion that ran during the month of July with Family Mart, which is one of the larger convenience store chains in Japan" with about 5,500 stores. That promotion involved the introduction of "a series of new sandwiches featuring California tomatoes." The promotion was "very successful" in terms of meeting the predicted volume estimates, he said.

As a result, to date "the sales of California tomatoes to Japan this year are up about eightfold over the previous year. The first two months of the season, we have done about 150,000 cartons to Japan" and "the market right now is quite strong," he said.

Convenience stores are "the fastest-growing retail segment" in Japan, and "the potential market for California tomatoes at the convenience store level is significant. We are looking at somewhere around perhaps $10 million a year in sales to the convenience stores," he said.

"This visit last week was to introduce to some of the other convenience store chains in Japan what [benefits] California tomatoes can provide," in comparison with locally produced tomatoes. "So on this trade mission we had a number of tasks. One was to provide a seminar" regarding the safety of California tomatoes, the proper handling of the tomatoes, and a cost-per- serving benefit analysis. "We had about 50 members of the trade there from convenience stores and their bakery vendors as well as importers."

As an outgrowth of that visit, two "reverse trade missions" are now scheduled in coming weeks. Suppliers of the convenience stores will be coming to California and meeting with California shippers, Mr. Beckman said.

Another topic "that was discussed while we were in Japan," Mr. Beckman continued, "was incorporating California tomatoes into the Buy California campaign that will be held in Japan this fall that spotlights Governor Schwarzenegger." That tie-in promises opportunities for California tomatoes in Japanese supermarkets.

"We are now in discussion with three retail chains to put greenhouse tomatoes from California on supermarket shelves in Japan for this fall," Mr. Beckman said. "The product that we are growing in California in the greenhouses is quite different from the product that is grown in Japan. We are also looking at introducing some other specialty tomatoes" to the Japanese marketplace at the retail level. "This is a bit of a departure from where we have been on the Japan project, which has been primarily foodservice oriented," he said. "But based upon our initial meetings in Japan, we do see some opportunities for some specialty product and the greenhouse product in the marketplace as well."

It has been a "very busy" year for the commission and the California tomato industry with regard to trade missions and reverse trade missions, Mr. Beckman said. "Two trips to Japan, two delegations from Japan, one trip to Canada, one delegation coming down, one trip to Mexico, one delegation coming up." Members of the California tomato industry have "just really gotten behind all of this trade mission activity," he said.