"Japan is a necessary step," said BPEX chief executive Mick Sloyan. "The Japanese market can open up other markets in South East Asia. Without it the other markets would be questioning why Japan was not importing British pig meat." Sloyan added that the British pig industry is now seeing stabilisation and growth following the problems of foot and mouth disease and falling prices.
The reopening of trade with Japan has long been in the offing. Two export missions from BPEX and major British exporting companies visited the country in the spring and autumn for a series of face-to-face meetings with officials and potential importers to help speed up the re-opening of the market.
"Our trade with Japan in pork used to be worth £12 million a year, a market well worth recovering," said BPEX chairman Stewart Houston. "In that area of the world, parts of the carcase which are not consumed, or even have a disposal cost in this country, can have a high value. So while the trade may not be huge it can add vital additional value to each pig carcase."
Indeed, industry experts believe that the market in fifth quarter products - offal that is usually rendered or considered waste by processors - could offer potential to British exporters. For an industry that has seen its value drop by a third in five years, this is welcome news.
"At a time of increasing feed costs this could be a real shot-in-the-arm for the British pig industry. Final clearance for export of live pigs and pig genetics is still awaited, but I am confident this can be achieved in the near future," said Houston.
The ongoing closure of the Japanese market has made it difficult for the UK pork processing industry to expand into other markets in Asia. This, however, is now a strong possibility. "I would like to thank the many government officials who worked so hard to make sure everything was in place for the re-opening to happen," said Houston.
There has already been considerable interest among the processing companies in restarting pork exports and the first consignment is expected to leave this country before the end of the month.
British trade in pork to Japan dried up following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK two years ago. Although other countries around the world had lifted the ban on British pork exports after the World Animal Health Organisation had declared the UK free of FMD, the Japanese maintained their ban.
The opening of the Japanese market represents the latest milestone in the UK pork processing industry's attempts to get back on its feet. The market in sow meat to the EU for the manufacturing market, particularly in Germany, has already picked up significantly, something that Sloyan believes is an important stepping stone in the industry's recovery.
In a further attempt to restore consumer confidence, a national pig health and welfare strategy has been launched. The strategy has been produced by the British Pig Executive (BPEX) the Pig Veterinary Society (PVS), the National Pig Association (NPA) and the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC). It was drawn up in response to government moves on health and welfare and has been endorsed by animal health and welfare minister Ben Bradshaw.
"A key proposal is the creation of a pig health and welfare council to drive this forward and that should be in place in early 2004," said Sloyan. Slowly but surely, the UK pork processing industry is returning to normal.