Eurobiz Japan, June 2015

Liquid gold - ICCJ’s 4th Italian Olive Oil Day on 30 May in Roppongi Hills

by Allison Bettin

Wine lovers are often found sniffing and slurping their favourite products at tasting events. However, another sensation was on the palate at a recent Italian Chamber affair in Roppongi: olive oil. The liquid gold was front and centre at the ICCJ’s fourth Italian Olive Oil Day, a trade show bringing in numerous Italian olive importers and producers.

“[The market] is growing,” says Susumu Watanabe of Sanyo Enterprises, a major Japanese importer of Italian food and beverage products.

“People like [olive oil], but still we have potential in the market.”

According to the International Olive Oil Council, consumption in Japan has increased tenfold over the last two decades. In 2014, Japan imported and consumed about 54,000 tonnes of olive oil, roughly 60% more than China.

Watanabe credits the rising popularity to a parallel boom in Italian food, as well as a growing awareness of olive oil’s health benefits. Numerous studies suggest that it can help prevent blood clots, lower cholesterol, and is loaded with antioxidants. In Japan, this is taken seriously.

“Some people already drink it for their health,” says Watanabe. “One spoon of olive oil with miso soup or juice, [works] to maintain the body.” He adds that most Japanese use it for dressing vegetables, deep-frying, and cooking pasta.

For the layman, olive oil is simple. Yet true connoisseurs can detect subtleties in variety and place of origin. Watanabe explains that lighter oils come from northern Italy — from regions such as Liguria — while a richer variety hails from the south, in places like Puglia and Sicily. “Light oil is good for vegetables and fish, and medium and strong is good for meat,” he says.

Exhibitors at the ICCJ event ranged from large-scale importers like Sanyo, to smaller producers who have yet to find an importer. “We are looking for some distributors to import our products,” says Giuseppe Greco, managing director of ProdottoD’Italia, a small family-run, oil producer. “I hope that it will be the first of a long relationship.”

Though ProdottoD’Italia is rooted in tradition, the young owners of the company are experimenting with innovative packaging techniques for the modern consumer. “If you look at our bottle, we have a barcode and if you scan [with your smart phone] you look in real time at the olive grove which this comes from,” Greco says. “We call this the ‘transparent supply chain’ project because you see the whole supply chain from an interview with the producer, [to a] snapshot of the olive grove with some sense of the soil, the moisture, the sun and the wind,” he continues.

Such smart design has earned the company awards from both the ICCJ and regional competitions in Italy — accolades the firm hopes will help it crack Japan’s competitive market. “There are a lot of sommeliers of olive oil, there are good importers [here],” says company president Roberto Mandurino. “They are very prepared, and it’s not so easy to find this preparation in other markets.”

Despite the rising popularity of olive oil, Japan still only accounts for about 1.7% of total global consumption. But industry professionals like Watanabe see this changing. At one time, he says “olive oil [was] a little bit strong for the Japanese people. But now, everybody has gotten used to it.

“Young people know about the taste. So in the future…” he adds, as yet another interested buyer approaches.

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