The largest group yet of Japanese food suppliers has been invited to this year's Food Expo, with the organisers hoping to re-establish Hongkongers' love affair with the country following the nuclear disaster triggered by March's earthquake and tsunami.
This year, the expo, which opened yesterday at the Convention and Exhibition Centre and ends on Monday, features more than 160 exhibitors from Japan, a near 80 per cent increase over last year.
One food importer said that in March most of the big casinos in Macau cancelled their orders of Japanese food. 'Some clients are still conservative, but most people are willing to try Japanese food,' said Kenneth Lee, director of Top Weal, a Hong Kong company that imports fruit and vegetables from Japan. He said business was almost back to normal.
One beef exporter from Japan told a different story. 'I got my export licence in March,' said Takeshi Ino, the owner of a meat processing company who was attending the exhibition. 'I am only exporting at 50 to 60 per cent of my maximum capability.'
But judging from the long queue outside his booth awaiting the sizzling, freshly grilled beef, it was hard to tell whether the Fukushima nuclear disaster was continuing to have an impact on the city's status as the largest destination for Japanese food exports. Last year Japan sent US$1 billion worth of agricultural products to Hong Kong.
Wendy Cheng, who lives in Siu Sai Wan, visited the food expo with her mother. She said she had stopped eating Japanese food after the disaster. 'Now I go back to Japanese restaurants. For example last month I went twice.' She said reports of contamination of fish or vegetables did not worry her much anymore.
Nobutaka Tsutsui, Japan's senior vice-minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, in Hong Kong on an official visit, delivered a speech at the expo to reassure the public about the safety of his country's food.
'The strengths of Japanese products are safety and their delicious taste. In that sense, I feel Japanese products are the best in the world.'
Nobutaka also discussed food safety yesterday with Marion Lai Chan Chi-kuen, the permanent secretary for food and health (food).
Apart from boosting confidence, Japanese businesses were also looking for market expansion opportunities.
For most of these smaller companies, expansion means finding the right local person to act as an agent, and the expo provides them with that opportunity.
'I'm the fourth generation of my family's 80-year-old vinegar business, and I desperately want a partner to bring me into the Chinese market through Hong Kong,' said Kenichiro Ohyama.