Food needs for Japan remain unclear

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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INDIANAPOLIS — Because damage from last Friday’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Japan makes shipping to some areas difficult and demand drops while people focus on doing emergency work, the United States will likely send less food to Japan in the coming weeks, agriculture experts said. It is currently not clear what Japan will need in terms of food from the US in the longer term, The Associated Press relayed.

“We’re hearing about a variety of needs, but more along the lines of water and blankets right now. We’re trying to get a handle on this ourselves as we speak,” Jim Herlihy, vice president of communications, US Meat Export Federation, told MEATPOULTRY.com earlier this week.

As the world’s third-largest economy, Japan is a major buyer of US grains and meats. It bought approximately 600 million bushels of corn in 2010 to process into livestock feed and it is a top export market for US pork, soybeans and California rice.

Analysts said they aren’t worried about a food shortage in Japan as it keeps large quantities of rice in reserve. Stockpiles spread throughout Japan meant there was no urgent need for rice imports, a US Department of Agriculture statement said.

Although Japan imports most of its pork and nearly three-fourths of its beef, Rich Nelson, director of research for Allendale Inc., a McHenry, Ill.-based commodity advisory firm, said he expects demand for such products to drop short-term as fewer Japanese citizens eat in restaurants.

There remains widespread uncertainty among analysts about what Japan would need, when and how much because the damage is still being assessed. Although just two of 12 ports handling bulk commodity shipments were damaged by the earthquake, aftershocks or tsunami, many smaller ports in the northeast were severely damaged, a USDA spokesman said.

Japan’s government has also imposed rolling blackouts to conserve power during its nuclear crisis, which could affect seaports’ ability to unload cargo shipments. As a result, some ships may head to other ports to deliver their goods, said Paul Bertels, vice president of production and utilization for the National Corn Growers Association in St. Louis. Damaged roads and highways also may slow shipments, he added.

Japan’s ports are expected to be back in full operation within the next month or so, said Tom Neher, vice president of agribusiness with AgStar Financial Services. Once that takes place, the US can expect to see an increase in demand both for food and products needed for rebuilding.

Although Japan imports all of its corn, Nelson expects to see shipments drop off with limited power available to process grains into livestock feed. He also expects some livestock would die.

Approximately 17% of Japan’s feed mills, which store grain and process corn and soybeans into feed, were in the hard-hit northeast region, and reports from Japan indicate some were damaged, Nelson said. Significant damage could disrupt the delivery of feed to farms, and a lack of food combined with power outages could result in some livestock starving or succumbing to the cold, he said.
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