Japanese Trade Team Explores Growing Food Barley Market

U.S. food barley varieties containing high levels of beta-glucan, a dietary fiber, have found a growing export market in Japan. A team of Japanese end-users traveled to North Dakota and Idaho this month to discuss the current and future growth potential for this niche market.

Japanese consumers place high importance on the nutritional value of their food, and specific varieties of U.S. food barley have heart-healthy properties that may reduce cholesterol, lower the risk of heart disease and reduce glycemic index, according to scientific research. These nutritional properties make U.S. varieties of food barley attractive for Japanese food producers who use the grain for products like cereal products and snack bars.

This team of Japanese food barley end-users included procurement and research/development officials from Japanese companies as well as two local bakery and confectionery manufacturers who are likely to utilize beta-glucan barley in their products. Team members talked with U.S. barley producers and processors who are planning to expand production as well as new market players, including shippers, who also are expressing interest in the Japanese market.

“This trade team saw the willingness of producers and processors to provide high beta-glucan barley,” said Tommy Hamamoto, USGC director in Japan, who accompanied the team. “The team met more market players in food barley than in previous trips and they are more serious about food barley market growth in Japan, indicating the potential to achieve a 100,000 metric ton (4.59 million bushels) market.”

Japanese barley trade with the United States has transformed substantially over time. Japan has not imported barley for feed from the United States for the last three years due to shifts in the U.S. barley industry from open market trade to contract barley production, particularly for malting barley.

However, U.S. barley growers now have a dominant supplier role for high beta-glucan food barley, thanks to a decade of work by the U.S. Grains Council (USGC), the U.S. barley industry and Japanese partner organizations.

The Council has partnered with Zenbakruen (All Japan Barley Industry Association), the Council of Japan Barley Foods Promotion and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) to promote the heart health benefits of barley with food snack companies and industry associations through educational seminars, trade teams and reverse missions. Based on these continued efforts, the industry now also independently promotes these products in the Japanese market through cooking programs and demonstrations, food shows and other market promotions.

Trade teams like the one in August are an important part of this market development work. Team members visited barley food processors, research facilities and seed breeders to obtain information on newly developed food barley (mainly beta-glucan barley) varieties and those under development. Additional meetings with producers and shippers were also optimistic about supplying food barley to Japan.

“Direct communications between buyers and sellers through these trade teams provides the mutual understanding and trust that is key to market promotion,” Hamamoto said. “Without mutual trust, producing high beta-glucan barley under contracts would fall into a chicken-and-egg situation where both sides are not willing to undertake the risk of pursuing this niche market.”

Learn more about the food barley promotion in Japan here.