DENVER — Until 2009, most Japanese consumers had never eaten pork back ribs, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Before the spring of 2009, the pork back rib did not exist in Japan — outside of a select few restaurants because the domestic pork industry produces single-ribbed loins. Even the Japanese pork industry did not know about the back rib.

"Although Japan is the premier export market for the U.S. pork industry, there are opportunities for growth, including unexplored niches like back ribs," said Takemichi Yamashoji, senior marketing director for U.S.M.E.F.-Japan. "Because of the way the hog is processed in Japan, neither consumers nor the trade have experienced pork back ribs, and we saw this as a real opening for U.S. pork."

Thanks to a textbook product introduction, with support from the Pork Checkoff, back ribs are now being served to millions of Japanese consumers.

During the FoodEx trade show in March, U.S.M.E.F. introduced pork back ribs in Japan where the high-value cut drew immediate interest from a number of buyers, including national retailers Ito Yokado and Aeon. Operating 179 outlets in Japan with estimated retail sales of $15.9 billion, Ito Yokado began selling back ribs immediately after FoodEx was over.

U.S.M.E.F. also teamed with Ito Yokado to conduct a U.S. pork sweepstakes campaign at its 105 outlets in the Kanto region during November with funding support from both the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council and the Nebraska Soybean Board. Ito Yokado reported selling about 20 metric tons (44,000 lbs.) of the back ribs during the sweepstakes.

Aeon, a retail giant with 1,850 stores and estimated retail sales of $58.1 billion, also debuted back ribs this spring and enjoyed better-than-expected sales results.

Although more than 1,500 retail outlets in Japan started selling back ribs in 2009, U.S.M.E.F. foresees more potential for increasing sales in the coming year "Most of the retail outlets are promoting U.S. pork back ribs for Christmas and the year-end celebrations," Mr. Yamashoji said. "We estimate that about 100 metric tons (220,000 lbs.) of back ribs will be sold in December at retail and food service, and the outlook for 2010 looks good."

For the year, U.S.M.E.F. estimates that the U.S. will have exported 660,000 lbs. of pork back ribs by the time the holiday season is completed.

In addition, the new demand for relatively expensive back ribs will help U.S. exporters comply with Japan’s complex gate-price system. The gate-price system requires importers to pay a duty for products priced under a specific per-pound price. The popularity of pork back ribs will enable U.S. exporters to pair them with less expensive pork loins and avoid paying the additional duties.

Through the first 10 months of 2009, the U.S. has exported 783.4 million pounds of pork products to Japan valued at nearly $1.3 billion.