DENVER — U.S. pork producers are concerned about the impact of H1N1 influenza on pork demand, both in the domestic and international markets. But despite some countries slamming the door on pork imports from nations reporting a flu outbreak, Japan remains fully open to pork imports.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, the U.S. is the market-share leader for imported pork in Japan — by far the largest value market for U.S. pork exports. In 2008, Japan imported 996 million lbs. of U.S. pork valued at nearly $1.55 billion. Through January and February of this year, exports to Japan have accelerated by 23% in volume and 35% in value over the same period last year. 

Gregory Hanes, U.S.M.E.F. Japan director, said the government of Japan has done an excellent job of educating consumers about the safety of pork and easing unfounded fears that may have associated H1N1 influenza with pork consumption.

"Some of the (Japanese) agencies publicly came out and clearly stated that they consider pork as safe," he said. It’s not related to the flu — and they said this is regardless of country of origin. They even warned retailers and foodservice outlets not to put up signs that would give consumers a false impression that certain types of pork were safer than others."

U.S.M.E.F. was extremely active in its efforts to maintain pork demand and prevent any loss of momentum for U.S. pork in this critical export market.

"On that first Monday (after the outbreak was first publicized), U.S.M.E.F. put together a press release with all of the key details and information about the situation," Mr. Hanes said. "That was also picked up by one of the wire services, Kyoto, so that information was [included in] a lot of the news articles that were published earlier that week. We also intensified customer contacts with our key target accounts making sure they understood the situation and were able to answer questions they were getting from their customers."

While restaurant sales have slowed somewhat due to the sluggish economy, Mr. Hanes said the H1N1 influenza situation has had little negative impact. At the retail level, sales are affected during this time of the year by the seven-day Golden Week holiday period. But Mr. Hanes said sales reports have been very positive, especially among outlets that have aggressively marketed pork.

Japan is once again proving its mettle as a very consistent and resilient market for U.S. pork, and producers can be confident in its continued high performance, Mr. Hanes said. "We probably saw some initial concerns when the news (about the flu outbreak) was first released, but a lot of those concerns have abated. Next week we should see much better returns to the normal pork-purchasing cycles," Mr. Hanes concluded.