Japan's mid-sized supermarkets to be first to restock U.S. beef

Japan's mid-sized supermarkets will be the first to restock U.S. beef, at substantial mark-ups, following the lifting of the country's two-year import ban, a news report said Friday, as major chains take a wait-and-see approach. Mid-sized grocers in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido and on the western island of Shikoku are among those planning to start selling North American beef again, at a total of more than 100 stores, the Nihon Keizai newspaper said, citing its own survey.

Prices are expected to be 20 percent to 30 percent higher than they were before the meat was banned in 2003, the report said. Japan partially lifted the two-year ban on U.S. beef imports on Dec. 12. Japan had been the most lucrative export market for American ranchers before they were shut out following the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd.

But U.S. beef faces an uphill battle in regaining market share in Japan, where consumers are particularly sensitive to safety concerns. A survey earlier this month by the Kyodo News agency showed about 75 percent of Japanese unwilling to eat U.S. beef because of mad cow fears, compared with 21 percent saying they would consume it. Some restaurants are still reluctant to market American meat, while major supermarket chains are also cautious.

After the ban was lifted, Daiei Inc., one of Japan's largest retailers with 210 stores nationwide, said it had no plans to sell U.S. beef and would wait to see how consumers reacted to its re-entry to the market.

An official for Ito-Yokado Co., Japan's second-largest chain operator with 181 stores, said the company also has no immediate plans to sell U.S. beef until consumers feel confident about its safety.

American beef producers unveiled plans Thursday for a public relations blitz to win over Japanese wary of mad cow disease but said it will take at least three years to reach the shipment levels seen before the 2003 import ban.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation said it would court Japanese retailers, in part, by taking them on tours of U.S. processing plants to show that the beef meats Japan's strict safety guidelines, reports the AP. I.L.

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