【Editorial】Efforts begin to market Japan-made rice flour – the world’s highest-quality gluten-free food – in Europe (Oct. 7)

Japan’s rice products industry will kick off a sales campaign on Oct. 8 to promote domestically-made rice flour in Europe, focusing on the gluten-free labeling created by the Japanese government and industry to certify nongluten products based on the strictest standards in the world. The campaign deserves attention as the pioneering efforts to export rice products.

Japan’s domestic market for farm produce is declining due to the falling birthrate and aging population. This is especially true for rice, whose demand has been shrinking by some 80,000 tons every year. The recent policy regarding rice is a typical downsizing, and rice farmers have been reducing production in line with the decreasing demand of rice as staple food, with no clear picture of the future.

The total production value of rice in 2015 was roughly 1.5 trillion yen, less than half of the value marked two decades ago. The government is currently working on boosting exports of agricultural products to create a strong agricultural sector. Among all the agricultural products, rice has the most potential to be marketed abroad.

Agriculture minister Ken Saito appears to be well aware of this. In early September, he launched a project to expand sales of rice in overseas markets, setting a goal of exporting 100,000 tons of rice and rice products including Japanese sake and rice sweets in 2019, up from the current yearly export of 24,000 tons. Rice flour should be the key product to lead the efforts to realize this ambitious goal.

The government has tried a couple of times in the past to boost production of rice flour, but failed to achieve noticeable results. The government’s production goal for rice flour is 100,000 tons a year, but the actual production was 19,000 tons in 2016, down from the peak of 36,000 tons marked in 2011.

The production of rice flour has not been on the rise mainly due to the price gap between rice and wheat, the high cost of milling and the product quality not high enough to encourage consumption. It will not be possible to boost further demand unless producers free themselves from the idea that rice flour is a substitute of wheat flour. They must build a clear strategy to add value to rice flour and promote its unique product characteristics.

One good news about rice flour is the establishment of a non-gluten labeling certification in March by the industry in cooperation with the farm ministry. The labeling enables producers and retailers to promote rice flour as a product free of gluten which causes wheat allergy.

Under the system, products can be labeled nongluten only if they contain 1ppm or less of gluten, which is about one twentieth of the standard set in Western countries. This means Japan-made rice flour can be promoted as a gluten-free product certified under the strictest standards in the world.

The global wheat consumption is estimated to total 700 million tons. The number of people suffering from celiac disease – a digestive disorder caused by an abnormal immune reaction to gluten – is said to be more than 5 million in Europe and 1.5 million to 3 million in the United States. The need for gluten-free food is growing, and the non-gluten food market is expanding in Western nations. Rice flour products of high quality can be a big advantage in seeking new markets abroad.

Country Arroz Promote Network, a nonprofit organization working to promote Japan-made rice flour, will start a two-week sales campaign on Oct. 8, touring major cities in Germany, France and Italy. It will hold tasting events and meetings with food producers, retailers and consumers to introduce Japan-made rice flour products and the non-gluten labeling system.

Seeking market opportunities for rice flour in countries where wheat has traditionally been the dominant staple is a demand creation based on reverse thinking. This is not a groundless challenge but evidence-based marketing. Let us hope the campaign will be well-received.

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