The customer is always right, and that’s never truer than when that customer is the largest importer of U.S. beef in Japan – and looking to buy more.

Nippon Ham, the largest ham and sausage manufacturer and distributor in Japan, currently purchases a significant percentage of all the U.S. beef exported there, and has a goal of boosting that amount considerably. However, the company is concerned that some members of its sales staff aren’t familiar enough with American beef. More than half of them joined the company during the post-BSE period when U.S. beef either could not be imported or was under severe limitations.

To remedy this, the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) and Nippon Ham’s subsidiary distribution company, Nihon Food, recently partnered on a series of three training seminars reaching more than 550 of the company’s sales professionals. Support for the seminars was provided through the USDA Market Access Program (MAP) and the Beef Checkoff Program.

The Nihon Food representatives in attendance were greatly interested in the possible revision in Japan’s current limitation on U.S. beef imports to product from cattle under 20 months of age, and how a change would affect the supply of U.S. beef, including variety meat cuts such as tongue and outside skirts.

“The Nihon Food participants were eager to obtain useful knowledge for their business,” says Takemichi Yamashoji, USMEF-Japan senior marketing director. “It was clear that Nippon Ham has an interest in expanding its sale of U.S. beef in Japan.”

Yamashoji led the seminar, which included background information on the production of U.S. beef and its quality attributes, market trends, effective merchandising ideas and a cutting demonstration.

“This kind of seminar has proven very effective for educating sales personnel in Japan,” he says. “With this added information, they become effective representatives for U.S. beef across the country.”

U.S. beef was also recently showcased at FoodEx 2012, which attracted nearly 75,000 attendees over four days. Held annually in Tokyo, FoodEx continues to make its mark as one of the largest and most important food industry exhibitions in the world by gathering thousands of buyers from across the Asia Pacific region.

Expanded access for U.S. beef in Japan was a hot topic among buyers at FoodEx, as they’re also monitoring the possible change in the cattle age limit on U.S. beef imports. Tongue and outside skirt were among the beef cuts attracting the greatest attention, with several yakiniku (Korean-style barbeque) restaurants planning to conduct full-scale promotions if regulatory relief is granted later this year. With demand in the U.S. still sluggish for middle meats, USMEF also made strong pitches to buyers for U.S. steaks and prime rib.

“Interest in U.S. beef is always strong at FoodEx, but this year offered a particularly exciting atmosphere,” Yamashoji says. “Buyers are increasingly eager to gain access to a wider and more reliable year-round supply.”

In 2011, Japan purchased nearly 350 million lbs. of U.S. beef valued at $874.4 million. Through January, this year’s beef exports to Japan were up 2% in volume and 26% in value vs. year-ago levels.