New-found austerity in the Japanese consumer market, particularly among those planning to be married, is putting a damper on Western Australia's A$300 million-plus (about HK$1.2 billion) lobster industry. The Japanese, fearful for their stagnant economy, are spending less on lavish weddings and the perishables air-freight industry is taking it on the chin. The declining sales of lobsters - from 14,780 tonnes in the early 1990s to 9,773 tonnes in 2000 - have had an impact on the air-freight export industry which has developed a highly efficient cool chain to deliver the live lobsters from pot to plate in perfect condition. What the Japanese experience illustrates is that while globalisation is the challenge facing Australia's food-export industry, local developments can still skew the best-laid strategies. In Australia's case, the National Food Industry Strategy was launched in July to supercede the government-backed Supermarket to Asia scheme. It sought to understand the impact of global deregulation and advanced technologies which have encouraged the convergence of consumer tastes and demands across national and cultural borders. 'This emerging global consumer is driving change throughout the production chain, presenting opportunities and challenges for the food industry,' Australia's Minister for Agriculture Warren Truss said. 'Historical advantages and approaches will not be sufficient to ensure success in the global food industry of the future.' The National Food Industry Strategy will increase the focus on innovation, supply chain management and competitiveness. Not least of the challenges of globalisation will be the ability of Australia's air-freight industry to meet the special logistical demands of delivering perishable foodstuffs on time and in pristine condition. The most recent survey of food importers in Asia told Australian perishable exporters that the potential for Australian foodstuffs had yet to be realised. Concerns were noted about logistical issues such as transshipment, effective cool-chain management, cargo tracking, clearance delays and transit times. The report concluded: 'A better understanding is needed of how these perceived impediments impact on the level of food imports the markets take from Australia.' Despite these concerns, Australia's growth in food exports to Asia continues to grow. Asia took A$12.7 billion worth of exports in 2000-2001, a comparative growth rate of 12 per cent. Asian markets took more than 53 per cent of Australian food exports in the financial year 2000-2001, while the target this year is for food exports to Asia to reach A$16 billion. Exports of wine, meat and seafood were among the star performers last year. For exports of fresh foodstuffs, next month's launch of Qantas offshoot Australian Airlines will be a major boost. Australian Airlines will fly from Cairns in north Queensland to six destinations in Asia: Fukuoka, Nagoya and Osaka in Japan, Taipei, Singapore and Hong Kong. Although its focus would be on leisure passenger traffic, Qantas general manager for freight Peter Frampton said the 767-300 aircraft to be used on these routes would provide a cargo payload of between seven and 10 tonnes. 'Australian Airlines' freight capacity will become part of the Qantas freight network and already interest in the new routes is very high,' Mr Frampton said. 'Qantas would offer connections from southern Australia ports to Australian Airlines services out of Cairns. We expect 80 per cent of the export business to come from the southern states.' Qantas is also beefing up its freight capacity by running a Polar Air freighter from Australia to Hong Kong once a week, and it is testing a route through Hong Kong and/or Bangkok to North America, returning through the South Pacific. In addition, an A$1.3 billion railway between Alice Springs and Darwin is expected to be completed by the end of next year. Flagged as Australia's new trade link to Asia, the north-south railway is running four months ahead of its construction schedule , with more than 220 kilometres of track laid since the project started in June. In total, the track will stretch 1,420 km. It will link Darwin, Australia's closest sea port to Asia, with the Red Centre city of Alice Springs, from where it will connect with an existing railway to Adelaide in South Australia. The rail line will reduce the time taken for sea freight from South Australia but is unlikely to have a major impact on air freight. 'Time-definite products will still pay a premium for the certainty of air,' said one exporter.