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Natural Inclination

Japanese Fast-Food Execs Shop Here for Organic Produce

September 24, 1997|EVELYN IRITANI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Japanese fast-food industry seems an unlikely place for an organic foods revolution. But top executives of such leading firms as Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan and Skylark, Japan's most popular family chain, are touring West Coast organic farms, food processors and kitchens this week searching for ideas and products to take back home.

The members of the Japan Food Service Assn., whose 800 restaurant chains, wholesalers and distributors represent more than $43 billion in annual sales, hope that putting organically grown products on their menus will give them an edge in an increasingly competitive market. KFC Japan already uses organic produce for sandwich trimmings and salads.

They also hope their emphasis on health safety in farming and food preparation will help regain the support of customers frightened by last year's E. coli scare. The poisonings killed a dozen people and sickened hundreds.

"It was quite natural that Japanese consumers reacted, but they overreacted," said Kazutaka Kato, who heads the group. "The food service industry was hurt very bad."

Kato, speaking Tuesday by telephone from Portland, Ore., the group's first stop, said that in the aftermath of that scare, many Japanese restaurants had to stop serving fresh salads and make steamed vegetables instead because the public was fearful of anything served raw or uncooked.

Winning the approval of this powerful Japanese industry group would be a huge break for California's organic food producers, according to Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation.

" 'California' and 'organic' are exciting terms in the Japanese marketplace," he said.

Japanese corporate cafeterias and five-star restaurants can provide a huge boost to organic food consumption because they are considered trendsetters, according to the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Trade and Commercial Diplomacy, the group's host.

During their visit, the Japanese executives will be treated to California cuisine using organic ingredients. The group is also interested in learning more about the U.S. government's efforts to create the first comprehensive regulations to govern the organic foods industry, from the farm to store shelves.

Companies already selling to Japan include Carson-based Westbrae Natural Foods, which is in the process of being acquired by Hain Food Group, and Organic Food Products Inc., the Morgan Hill company that produces Millina's Finest pasta sauces and products, Cinagro juices and Garden Valley Naturals pasta products.

John Battendieri, president of Organic Food, said he is already selling some pasta products and juices to Japanese retailers, including the Jusco supermarket chain. But after a recent visit to Japan, he believes he can boost his business significantly by tweaking some of his formulas and re-sizing products.

Battendieri pointed out that the family-size containers popular in the United States would not sell well in Japan, where refrigerators are small and storage room is scarce. Meals prepared for takeout represent a very lucrative piece of the Japanese food market.

"The challenge for us is to take the available raw material and design it to meet the palates and needs of the Japanese consumer," he said.

U.S. organic producers are hampered by Japan's strict regulations to prevent the import of pests and disease, and by the perishable nature of organically grown produce. Both make it expensive to transport their foods long distances.

Tonya Pavich, marketing manager for Pavich Family Farms, one of the state's oldest organic farms, said her company has sold raisins to Japan for several years and recently began exporting citrus fruit and broccoli crowns. But she doesn't believe Japan will represent a large market for fresh produce in the near future.

"I look at it as a more gourmet and limited market," she said.

*

Evelyn Iritani can be reached by fax at (213) 237-7837 or by e-mail at evelyn.iritani@latimes.com

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