Tomoka Yamanishi and her 5-year-old son were grocery shopping in an upscale Tokyo neighborhood one Wednesday in late September. It was the dinner rush at Summit Store, a bright American-style supermarket in a residential area known as Seijo.
A voice blared over the intercom. Fresh tonkatsu, a breaded, fried pork cutlet that’s a favorite in Japanese homes, was hot and ready. This was Silky Pork from North Carolina. A colorful sign in the aisle explained the chops were sent “from the other side of the ocean to the daily table.”
Yamanishi grabbed a toothpick and sampled a juicy slice surrounded by a fluffy pile of golden crumbs. “Oishii,” she said. Delicious.
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She paid 367 yen, about $3.50, for a quarter-pound piece of loin. That night, her family had North Carolina pork with rice and vegetables for dinner.
It was the final stop in a 7,000-mile journey that started nearly eight months earlier on a farm in Duplin County.
At some point, the statisticians will capture her purchase and tabulate it as part of a growing meat exports market, which has boomed over the past decade. State economists will cheer the wages at home in a tough environment for jobs. The official report might make the newspaper or end up as a blurb on TV.
But the scene at the Summit Store also showed how taste buds halfway across the globe affect the North Carolina farmer as never before. The development of this product has state leaders curious: Could other companies do this?
Sending pork across the planet is a more personal endeavor for Bob and Ted Ivey, farmers who oversee the family-owned Maxwell Foods operation near Goldsboro. They produce a pork with more marbling and more sweetness to compete in a crowded field of “branded” pork in Japan. The brothers worked years to create its special flavor and grow a business that will send the meat from 200,000 North Carolina hogs to Japan this year.
“People over there really recognize high-quality food,” Bob Ivey said. “It’s just like people recognize high-quality wine or other things. And for us, you like to be known for producing a high-quality product. There’s a lot more pride in that than just throwing something out the door.”
Selling a story
A few days before Yamanishi ate Silky Pork, Peter Thornton sat in a conference room at the world headquarters of Sumitomo Corp., high above a spread of buildings along Tokyo Bay.
Thornton, an international marketing director at the N.C. Department of Agriculture, was talking with Japanese executives who import the Iveys’ pork about the unusual challenge of getting grown-to-order meat from Eastern North Carolina to Tokyo without freezing it.
He looked at the president of SC Foods, a Sumitomo food division, and asked: Can the success of Silky Pork be duplicated?
Hirofumi Norimoto paused for a moment.
It’s the product, he said. It has to be special. It has to be better. It has to have a story that can be sold to customers with confidence.
“The important point is the product you sell,” he said. “For us, we can trace which farmer made this pork.”
Thornton wonders if sweet potatoes or soybeans or North Carolina wine and spirits could end up in foreign markets in a large way.
The answer is complicated, but it’s one he is constantly trying to understand. Thornton meets farmers across North Carolina who have no desire for such a pursuit – and he knows others who have a great product but can’t find an overseas buyer.
He’s also seen some successes, if on a smaller scale.
Triangle-based honey company Vintage Bee, for example, has developed a following in Asia, with about 10 percent of its sales there in creamed honey. Well-known Bone Suckin’ Sauce, based at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, is now sold in 70 countries.
Thornton is interested in whether North Carolina soybeans, which have certain characteristics because they are grown in a warmer climate, could enjoy a following as “natto,” a traditional dish in Japan made from fermented soybeans. Or whether the Pacific Rim might take to sweet potato fries, since North Carolina has the nation’s biggest crop.
Officials in the state’s Commerce Department and at a range of nonprofits focused on rural North Carolina also believe that food is a way for struggling regions to grow jobs. Sharon Decker, who will leave her post as North Carolina’s commerce secretary at the end of the month, has often pointed to successes with processing, packaging and distribution centers that opened in recent years. The global markets, however, work both ways; the state has seen poultry plants close because of changes in foreign demand.
Decker said plenty of food jobs pay more than retail and help stimulate further activity. Many of the entry-level jobs are low-skill, she acknowledged, but that matches a segment of the workforce that is looking.
She spent parts of two days with Thornton in Japan, calling on executives, meeting with importers and trying to maintain or build connections.
She also went to a restaurant called Ootoya, where she ordered a dish of pork grilled with soy sauce. The meat was Silky Pork – the only pork Ootoya serves.
Decker looked at her plate and grinned, then took out her phone and snapped photos.
“Pretty cool,” she said. “Who would have ever guessed this?”
Only Silky Pork here
The menu at Ootoya is a colorful 22 pages of large photos showing dishes of rice, vegetables and fish. And Silky Pork.
The menu spares no details explaining to customers what the Ivey brothers and Maxwell Foods have done. There is a special box for it, with a photo of a fresh pork loin being sliced.
The menu describes the special four-way crossbreeding that produces the pork. It describes the marbling and sweetness. And it highlights one of the most crucial aspects in the chain of links from North Carolina to Tokyo: the focus on temperature while it is en route.
“Carried to the shop chilled,” the menu says, “the temperature of even the container to import is controlled.” This keeps “meat juice” from seeping out, the menu says, and leads to a “persistence of palatability.”
It is hard to imagine anything comparable in the Triangle.
Ootoya is to Japan what Cracker Barrel is to the South – a restaurant aiming for home cooking at a decent price. Where Cracker Barrel is cluttered with country decorations, the Ootoya restaurants are decidedly Asian inside – simple, crisp, soft music.
Pork holds a special place in the Japanese diet, not like seafood, but close. Ootoya has built its menu around a higher-quality but more-affordable option than Japanese-grown pork, said Toshimi Shimamura, a senior marketing manager.
That decision has made Ootoya the biggest restaurant customer for Silky Pork. Ootoya also has two locations in New York, with another about to open. It’s the only restaurant in the U.S. where Silky Pork is on the menu.
Susumu Harada, a senior trade director based in Japan for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said Silky Pork benefits from its story, which is marketed to “housewives” in the supermarket aisles and to restaurant customers who want the quality but not the sticker shock.
“Silky Pork is one of the pioneers in the real sense,” Harada said. “Silky Pork has a story behind it, factual based and nothing is kind of created. It’s all the facts attached to the product.”
A repeat customer
In late September, when Yamanishi bought hot Silky Pork tonkatsu at the Summit grocery store, she became a first-time customer.
Her cut had come from a hog that was raised on three different farms in North Carolina and then butchered in Clinton on the morning of Aug. 21.
When her loin reached Japan two weeks later, it went from Tokyo to a plant an hour away, in an area called Omiya. There, workers sliced it neatly into even cuts and scored it under sharp knives before an X-ray machine looked for any tiny pieces of bone.
Her cut went to a warehouse and then to the kitchen at the Summit Store in Seijo, where a cook dipped a half dozen pieces into a bit of egg, breaded them with panko, fried them and then wheeled them on a cart out to a display in the store. The cook placed the tonkatsu next to a basket of giant shrimp and a heap of pumpkin croquettes.
Yamanishi has been back.
She said in follow-up exchanges by email that she had bought Silky Pork several times since that first purchase. This pleases Sumitomo and the Iveys. A repeat customer.
Last month, she posted a photo of the Silky Pork on her dinner plate to her Facebook page, noting she’d once made tonkatsu for Americans while visiting New York.
“Delicious foods are common in all countries,” she wrote to her friends.
Will Americans buy it?
Bob and Ted Ivey host a steady stream of visitors to their offices on U.S. 70 near LaGrange. Spend enough time there and you get the feeling they have something big in mind, maybe in North Carolina, maybe not.
Bob Ivey went to China this summer and came away astounded at the potential for growth. Traveling in the countryside, he tried to count the cranes on the horizon as whole new cities seemed to spring up. He lost track. China is still an untapped market for U.S. cuts from high on the hog, such as loins, that bring the most profit.
Last month, a group from Illinois was in town to meet and share ideas about breeding. The month before, other visitors from the Midwest were swapping information on the latest research.
The Japanese come, too, visiting farms here or at Maxwell Foods’ operations in Indiana.
Raoul Baxter, a former top executive at Smithfield Foods, said the Iveys keep everything “very close to the vest.” Baxter worked with them for years as the Silky Pork business first got going.
“They’re absorbing everything, and they’re very, very, very smart,” he said. “Even if they weren’t financially rewarded, they always want to be the best at what they do.”
The Iveys said they are focused most of all on their animals. But they wonder if Americans would take to the same type of approach that has worked in Japan – more fat in the meat, more sweetness in the taste and more attention to quality. It costs more.
Visit a butcher shop or a specialty grocery in the U.S., such as Whole Foods, and the signs are starting to appear for more distinctiveness in fresh pork. As of now, Silky Pork isn’t available in U.S. groceries. The concept is more likely to spread with restaurants, which can promote certain items – and the farm they came from.
Today, from supermarket to supermarket, most fresh pork in the U.S. is labeled the same: born, raised and harvested in the U.S.A. Where? By whom?
“I do think people will want to know the story, want to know how it was produced, where it was produced,” Ted Ivey said. “They’re going to want something that tastes good. There’s going to be a segment of society that wants more than just commodity pork.”
They also know there will be no shortage of demand elsewhere. The United Nations estimates global meat consumption will nearly double over the next four decades. Growing middle classes in the rest of Asia will turn to pork, just as Japan already has.
Kelly Zering, a professor at N.C. State who specializes in the pork economy, said what people buy will continue to “segment” into diverse channels, based on culture, preference and income.
“The implication,” Zering said, “is that there are groups that are willing to pay for specific traits of their food, and producers are striving to identify and supply those market demands. The Iveys have demonstrated how to succeed in this market environment.”
Every year in the spring, if business has been good, the Maxwells and Iveys deliver bonus checks to some employees.
This year, the staff gathered at the Hog Annex, the hub of the swine operation. The Silky Pork business, the Ivey brothers said, had again done well.
The gathering was for employees only. Bob Ivey held a stack of white envelopes in one hand. With the other, he shut the door.
The two brothers went inside, where they shared profits with the North Carolinians who helped send hogs to Japan.