DENVER – A group of Japanese consumers who were given a chance to compare premium-branded US chilled pork with domestic pork in a side-by-side taste challenge recently at a leading Tokyo hotel experienced an unexpected surprise.

The event at the Oriental Hotel Tokyo Bay, called “What is Premium American Pork?” was attended by 100 consumers who were invited through hotel advertizing and via the US Meat Exporter Federation's Japan website. Some of these people tasted premium-branded US pork for the first time. They were joined by representatives of a leading Japanese importer, who heard the reactions of Japanese consumers firsthand.

Chef Murayama, executive chef at the Oriental Hotel, coordinated the taste test. Having developed a strong appreciation for chilled private brand US pork, Murayama highlighted his hotel’s special menu promotion featuring US pork. As the sampling progressed, it was apparent that his taste was shared by the participating consumers.

“I have heard of this [US branded pork], but I thought it was domestic,” said one consumer. “I’d like to buy it for its high quality.”

“These comments were very refreshing because there usually is a clear preference for domestic products,” said Takemichi Yamashoji, USMEF-Japan senior marketing director. “Most consumers in Japan do not know that US pork has different brands, so reaching them – and having a major importer and distributor hear those comments – is beneficial.”

Support for the event was provided through Pork Checkoff funding.

“Japan is not a commodity market,” Yamashoji said. “It is a high-value market. There are more than 250 Japanese private-pork brands.”

USMEF-Japan initiated an online campaign to invite consumers to vote for their favorite brand of US chilled pork. The campaign is off to a fast start – drawing more than 10,000 voters in the first two weeks. Each of 200 winners selected in a drawing at the end of the six-week promotion will receive 500g (1 lb., 63 oz.) of US branded pork.

Other elements of the USMEF chilled branded pork campaign include promotions at retail and foodservice, as well as bringing visiting teams of Japanese pork importers to the US to visit production facilities and farms.

At the conclusion of the Oriental Hotel event, 92 percent of the participants expressed their desire to purchase US branded pork.

Japan is the highest value market for US pork exports. Through the first nine months of 2011, US pork exports to Japan totaled 367,042 metric tons (809.2 million lbs.) valued at $1.4 billion, increases of 14 percent in volume and 18 percent in value over 2010. Japan accounts for 22.6 percent of the volume and 33 percent of the value of all US pork exports this year.