Specialty Pork Finds Japanese Audience

Jul 8, 2016  | 6 min  | Ep4146

Making a business flourish is sometimes a chance meeting or pursuing a path others have long-since abandoned.

For two North Carolina brothers it was a combination of both that started a profitable venture based on a single idea.  Peter Tubbs reports.

On a cool North Carolina morning, 184 hogs are slowly loaded onto a truck. A combination of unique breeding and specialized diet has earned their carcasses an 8000 mile trip to Japan. But this export opportunity began 40 years ago with a humble spreadsheet.

Bob Ivey, President, Maxwell Foods   “We wrote software for indexing pigs. We would measure economic traits like born alive, 21 day litter weight, growth weight, we would measure back fat

The results of their testing led to a four-way cross hog that gained weight well while being calm in the hog house. The resulting meat stood out from other hogs being raised at the time.

Bob Ivey, President, Maxwell Foods  – “You know the industry was chasing lean, lean, lean, no intermuscular fat, that product is very hard to cook, and can be very tough.”

The hogs were different- their meat had marbling, and a much higher fat content, which made the pork juicy on the plate. This marbling caught the attention of Japanese wholesaler Sumitomo, who was looking to import pork with some specific characteristics not normally seen coming out of U.S. hog houses.

Ted Ivey, Manager, Maxwell Foods – “They came into the plant and they saw the pork that were based on these genetics, the four-way cross, and they basically said that pork works for us. Started out with a tractor trailer load of hogs a week.”

The Ivey’s now ship more than twelve thousand metric tons of pork to Japan annually. The partnership with Sumitomo came just after the Ivey’s had begun working with the Maxwell family to grow their hog operation. The Maxwell’s, the nation’s largest turkey processor, had excess capacity at their Goldsboro North Carolina feed mill, and together with the Ivey’s grew a hog operation to over seventy thousand breeding sows. The Ivey’s now operate Maxwell Foods.

Sumitomo branded the Ivey’s pork as Silky Pork.

Bob Ivey, President, Maxwell Foods  – “In Japan the domestic pork is kind of the gold standard. I think we will be recognized as having one of the best brands in Silky Pork compared to their domestic pork, we have the reputation of not being a commodity pork but a special dining experience that competes well with their domestic product so we are very proud of that.”

The Japanese consumer is much more discerning than the American customer. While American households spend around 10 percent of their income on food, Japanese consumers spend more than 30 percent. The higher cash outlay is driven by a quest for quality and knowing as much as possible about the source of their food.

The pursuit of the highest quality product remains part of the Ivey’s business mix. The pair owns their own feed lab, which monitors the 750 semi loads of inputs and mixed feed that pass through the plant each week, a third of which goes to hog rations. To guard against disease, every truck is washed before it travels to a farm using two different truck washes.

At the plants where Silky Pork is processed, like this one in Rantoul, IL, Sumitomo places its own inspectors to help insure the pork is being cut in the way Japanese consumers prefer.

Yoko Miyawaki visits all the plants that process Silky Pork.

Yoko Miyawaki, Sumitomo Food Business Group – “I would say that the Japanese consumer want super safe products. However it was produced, they want to be sure it was a safe production procedure, and also wants to purchase stuff that is traceable.”

Although pork is a traditional protein source in Japan, it has been secondary to seafood. The Westernization of the Japanese diet has included an increase in red meat consumption, especially among younger consumers.

Learning the unique demands of the Japanese consumer has been one of the leading challenges for the Ivey’s.

Bob Ivey, President, Maxwell Foods  – “They have really taught us a lot about how to make food better, and safer, and taste good. They have been a great customer and it has really been a great learning experience because we think the same thing is happening in the United States.”

Ted Ivey, Manager, Maxwell Foods –  “We believe the American consumer is adapting to the Japanese model. There are more and more people who want to know the story behind their food production.”

Rantoul Foods, which handles the majority of the Ivey’s Silky Pork, is a unique part of the supply chain. The owners strive for accuracy and quality over volume. The line moves at a much slower speed than conventional pork plants, allowing meat cutters to make more precise cuts and ensure the product always matches Sumitomo specifications.

Each package is sealed individually, dunked in a cooling tank to remove any surplus heat, and inspected before boxing. The pork will remain at 34 degrees for the entire 17 day trip to Japan, delivered fresh to Sumitomo for slicing and delivery to retailers.

One cut that is produced in Rantoul is the single ribbed belly. American processors usually cure it for bacon, however the Japanese consumer slices the belly for cooking. At plants like Rantoul the spare ribs are pulled out individually, leaving the rib meat attached to the belly. The cut earns a premium in Japan, and justifies the labor intensive prep.

The Ivey’s data and focus on quality has given Japanese retailers the confidence to market Silky Pork next to domestic pork successfully.

And the brothers have plans to expand their reach by looking for markets closer to home. The Ivey’s are partnering with Sumitomo to bring their high quality pork to a growing audience of American consumers who are focused more on experience and quality than price.

Bob Ivey, President, Maxwell Foods  – “We think we’ve done that in Japan and we would love to do that here in the States. The American consumer deserves it. I don’t think they’ve gotten it yet.” 

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