Meros Calendar: Where can we meet this winter?

Meros has a packed schedule in the next weeks attending key industry events in Europe and Japan. We will be meeting with partners and friends and always looking to connect with others interested in innovation and business growth in the dynamic food industry.

If you’re attending any of these events, don’t hesitate to reach out and connect with us!

What are the hot topics in Japanese foodtech closing out 2023?

As 2023 draws to an end, three major foodtech topics Meros followed this year: the growing interest in circular economy, sustainability and Japan’s emerging cultivated meat sector, were all still front and center at the annual Foodtech Japan, Drink Japan and the Smart Restaurant EXPO at Tokyo Big Sight this month. Not only could we glean insights into where the Japanese market is focusing now, but we could also get a sense of what issues may be the hot food industry topics of 2024.

Circular economy and food loss

Initiatives and technologies utilizing ‘non-standard’ or discarded fresh produce are increasing. Projects are being seen everywhere, from large companies to start-ups. Meros has been working closely on food loss projects in the Japanese fresh food industry this year and so of particular interest to us was Astra Food Plan.

Astra Food Plan is a Japanese Series A start-up that uses superheated steam technology to dry food waste rapidly into powder. Astra Food Plan offers a range of examples, including lemons, onions, eggshells, and green tea leaves. Upon smelling the lemon vials, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a very strong smell of lemons, even in this powdered form, suggesting clear commercial applications.

A noticeable difference between Astra Food Plan’s idea and other circular economy-based products focusing on compost was that this is one of the dew start-ups focusing on upcycling and re-commercialization. Each dry food waste powder has tailored individual usages, taking into consideration their characteristics: the lemons for baking, the eggshells for high-end beauty products and green tea to mix with plastic, potentially to create rubbish bags that prevent odor. This diversity of potential commercial applications makes Astra Food Plan one we will continue to watch.

DX & the Japanese Labor Crisis

The reoccurring theme across all the events at the EXPO was DX (digital transformation), with many companies displaying AI-based products aimed at alleviating the strain placed on the food and beverage industry from Japan’s growing labor shortage.

There were certainly samples of the now-familiar delivery robots found in many Japanese restaurant chains – new prototypes of these ever cuter delivery robots were delivering boxed lunches to customers in the food court area of the event. However the more interesting innovation targeted automation for food manufacturing and central kitchens. For example, machines that automate the task of stir-frying were on display and may soon be found in industrial kitchens in Japan. Add the ingredients into this machine and it will then stir-fry the dish with no human help.

Sustainability: Including human rights and labor issues

Meros attended a number of seminars and a top topic was sustainability. For example, Ms Shihumi Takamori from Asahi Holdings Japan, producer of Japan’s #1 beer, presented on their domestic sustainability initiatives and policies and also discussed some of their challenges in this space. Seeing such major Japanese food companies taking center stage to speak bluntly about sustainability issues would have been rare just two years ago. But there is a growing movement among the major Japanese manufacturers to take global sustainability issues more seriously.  

A few takeaways from this seminar were:

  • The five pillars of Asahi’s sustainability global policy are environment, communities, responsible drinking, health and human rights.
  • Asahi has initiatives covering each sustainability pillar at each stage of their supply chain (sourcing, distribution, manufacturing and retail). For example, one of the issues of concern under human rights is the working conditions of truck drivers in their distribution system. An example initiative to address this is collaboration between Asahi, Kirin (Japan’s other giant brewery), and Japan Rail (JR) train services for distributing their beers. This kind of collaboration between companies (even rivals!) as well as effective use of the Japanese train system is likely to be of increasing importance, as the industry anticipates the shortage of truck drivers in Japan to become a ‘very hot’ topic in 2024.
  • However, Asahi Holdings feels there is still big differences between Asahi Japan and their international companies in terms of sustainability progress. Asahi has purchased numerous major beer brands in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in recent years and Takamori admitted that differences in sustainability policies and the progress towards sustainability goals within the Japan parent company and their international business is something they continue to tackle.

Cultivated meat in Japan

This has been a major area of interest to Meros this year, as we worked on several market assessments for international clients interested in Japan’s cultivated meat industry and also mentored the award-winning cultivated seafood start-up Forsea, as they explore Asian markets.

We were particularly interested in a seminar featuring the CEOs of two of the four main Japanese cultivated meat startups: Diverse Farm and Organoid Farm.

The key takeaways from Mr Jiro Ono, CEO of Diverse Farm and Ms Taeko Yamaki, CEO of Organoid Farm, included:

  • Cultivated meat is not yet commercially available in Japan but to create solid legislation for the manufacture and sale of cultivated meat, safety requirements, providing a sense of security (to consumers and stakeholders), licensing and labeling are the critical areas that must be agreed on.
  • There is still debate about the different factors and perspectives to consider when choosing which animal cell to cultivate. They cited research that suggests cultivated chicken meat actually has a carbon footprint 4% higher than conventional chicken, compared to the significant decrease in the carbon foodprint of cultivated beef (down by 92%) and pork (down by 52%). However when considering animal welfare, cultivated chicken has arguably the biggest improvement compared to conventional chicken.
  • The Japanese industry has a goal of harvesting over 1 ton of cultivated meat, but still faces significant challenges in scaling up.

Looking ahead

In 2024 Meros will continue to track the topics of circular economy, sustainability and the emerging cultivated meat industry in Japan.

We also expect to keep an eye out on the issue of shortage of truck drivers and other labor issues in the supply chain as well as follow the growing discussions on biodiversity as a critical aspect of sustainability initiatives. Meros, a co-founder of the Japan Impact Investing Network (J-IIN) will be holding a series of webinars on natural capital, including biodiversity in 2024 and we invite you to follow our page and the J-IIN page on LinkedIn for updates.

Our summer research assistant has arrived – welcome Kana Ueno!

Our newest summer assistant has arrived and is already hard at work. Welcome, Kana Ueno!

Kana is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where she is majoring in Sustainable Development Studies. While she grew up in Tokyo, she has an adventurous spirit that led her to choose to study in Switzerland for high school before moving to Scotland to continue her exploration of the world.

She is a full-time summer intern with us in Tokyo this summer and is already deep into research on aquaponics and its global players, supporting field interviews on Thai edible insect products sold in Japan and beginning research into her own independent project on sustainable palm oil.

Kana explained her motivations for wanting to join us this summer. “I wanted to be a summer assistant at Meros because I liked that Meros specializes in food and agribusiness consulting. Since I have been interested in the topic of sustainability and as it is what I major in at university, I was looking for work experience where I can learn how sustainability comes up “in the real world”. After reading the description of what Meros does and how Meros navigates decision-making along the value chain in the food industry, I instantly knew I can learn something new in this environment. I am still considering several possible career paths and I really wanted to know what consulting firms do and how they approach their work.”

This summer Kana will be diving into the complex issue of sustainable palm oil and the incentives and certifications that can encourage sustainable practices in palm oil supply. She expects to conduct interviews with palm oil sourcing experts in the EU and Japan to identify some best practices and leading players in sustainable palm oil.

“Although I am just starting to dig into the topic, I am aiming to find out how sustainable palm oil is procured by companies in Japan, with specific focus on the RSPO certification system and the guidelines/policies Japanese companies have proposed in terms of palm oil procurement. I had learned in my university studies about how palm oil plantations can have a destructive impact on the environment, and I became very curious about how this issue is perceived and being approached in the Japanese food industry. I am excited to dig deeper into this topic and find out the dilemmas companies are facing in sourcing sustainable palm oil, as well as what “sustainable” palm oil really means.”

Of course, as a Team Meros member, Kana works hard, but also plays hard. “I am looking forward to meeting up with my friends to explore izakaya Japanese pubs, especially in some of our favorite Tokyo areas such as Sangenjaya and Gakugei-daigaku. Though I am not a big fan of the humid and burning hot summer in Tokyo with its annoying mosquitoes, I am excited for the summer working at Meros and spending some good quality time with my friends and family. I definitely want to go for a drive whenever possible – I don’t have that many chances to drive in Scotland and I need to keep up my driving skills!  I am also planning to improve my golf game and travel with my family.”

“When I am in Scotland, out of all kinds of Japanese food, what I miss the most is definitely my mum’s homemade dishes like cabbage rolls and hijiki seaweed. I love any kind of cuisine and am always keen to try new foods, but when I am back in Tokyo nothing beats good sashimi and my izakaya favorites like dashimaki tamago, – rolled omelettes made of eggs and dashi. Yum!”