Japanese internship offers inside look at meat industry
La Barge – After a month spent in all regions of Japan on an internship with the Japanese meat industry, Rachel McGinnis says she’d like to go back.
The internship was through a program with Montana State University’s College of Business, which sends two students each year. The Japanese company that sponsors the interns’ lodging, food and travel is Starzen International, one of the largest meat importers in Japan.
“They took us to all the different parts of the supply team – to the market where they buy and sell cattle, to the slaughterhouse, and to subsidiary companies where they manufacture meat products,” says McGinnis, who is a graduate student in accounting at MSU.
The internship was mostly educational, learning about the Japanese industry and culture, but McGinnis and her fellow intern Sonja Jennings also helped Starzen employees with their English. Another internship requirement was a semester of Japanese language classes leading up to the trip.
“My husband owns a ranch in Wyoming, and I was really interested in the internship with its focus on the meat industry and international trade,” says McGinnis, who ranches with her husband Michael McGinnis on the Diamond H ranch near La Barge in the summer and, for now, spends time on her Master’s degree during the school year.
“The company imports pork, beef and chicken, so they took us to all their warehouses, and they have different cutting styles than we do in America, so we got the book and at some point we’ll try to cut a steer Japanese style here in Wyoming,” says McGinnis. “I’ve already started making food in some of the ways they do over there.”
“Eating at authentic Japanese restaurants was a huge experience. A lot of their food isn’t cooked, and I ate everything from raw shrimp to raw tuna and raw liver,” says McGinnis. “It was very different, but Sonja and I made a pact that we’d eat whatever they put in front of us. The food was a wonderful experience, and we started to appreciate it by the time we were through.”
McGinnis says Starzen provides almost 100 percent of the beef to McDonalds restaurants in Japan, and one plant exclusively produces hamburger patties for the fast food chain.
Of the recent effects of foot and mouth disease in the country, McGinnis says, “They gave us several lectures on the disease’s effects, and it was really sad. They had to kill everything in the quarantine areas, including the liquidation of six of their best Wagyu sires, and that’s a big loss to recover from, because the Wagyu is so specific.”
“I’ve been to Europe, and at least I can read in Europe. In Japan it was so different, and the most surprising thing was how welcoming everybody was,” she comments. “Everyone completely opened up to us, and some of our coworkers would take us out to eat at least three times a week to experience authentic Japanese food styles, and it was wonderful. I made so many friends while I was over there.”
“The company, as a part of the internship, sent us to different cities to learn about the culture,” she adds. “We were in Tokyo most of the time, but we also went on a three-hour train trip to the most historic city in Japan, which wasn’t bombed during WWII.”
“Going out to eat with the President of the company was a memorable experience. We had some great conversations with him, and I’ve never had an experience like that before,” she says. “They made us feel really comfortable.”
“One of the most exciting things was an hour-and-a-half meeting with the USDA minister in Japan at the U.S. Embassy, where he told us about what the ag minister is trying to accomplish in Japan.”
“U.S. beef is Japan’s preferred beef,” notes McGinnis. “Most of the beef they import comes from Australia and the U.S., and they told me U.S. beef goes exclusively into steak and higher-end cuts because it’s more tender, juicy and flavorful. They’re trying really hard to get the age limits raised to make it easier to import U.S. beef, because it’s one of their more profitable markets. It’s what the consumers want.”
With her graduate degree, McGinnis says she’d like to get her CPA and be a managerial accountant, specializing in farm and ranch taxation using her ag background. “It’s a field in which not many people are interested, but it’s so useful because they need someone who knows the difference between a steer and a bull.”