BATANGAS—A local subsidiary of a Japanese company is introducing to the local market precooked, ready-to-eat rice products using the parent firm's unique technology.
BiotechJP Corp., based in this province, last year launched Echigo, a precooked, protein-reduced rice intended mainly for people with chronic kidney disease.
It is now working on the commercial distribution this year of three other products -- Insta Rice (regular, precooked rice that only needs to be microwaved), Gohan Lite (calorie-reduced precooked rice, also for reheating), and Rice-to-Go (ready-to-eat rice that can be consumed without heating).
All four products, which are sold in 200-gram packs, use locally grown Rc-160 rice, which is close to the characteristics and quality of a Japanese rice, said Trisha Ann Garcia, the company's general manager.
The products are licensed by the government's Food and Drug Administration and have shelf lives of either six months or one year, she added.
"Our product is rice, and for Filipinos, 'rice is life.' So, our chairman, Kiyosada Egawa, sees a big market here," Garcia, who is a nutritionist by profession, told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
Egawa's main company, Biotech Japan Corp., was opened in 1994 and is based in Niigata Prefecture, north of Tokyo, facing the Sea of Japan.
The Philippine subsidiary, the company's only one so far outside of Japan, was established in April 2015, with commercial operations commencing in January 2017. So far, it is the only company producing precooked, packed rice in the country.
"Our challenge here in the Philippines is that, Filipinos are used to eating rice straight from the pot. We are still not used to opening a pack, placing it in the microwave oven, and then, having your rice ready to eat in two minutes," Garcia said.
Thus, to deal with this traditional lifestyle barrier, the company is marketing its products through exhibits, the most recent of which was at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, and by initially targeting consumers in the top two income classes.
Garcia said Echigo, which is the parent company's major product in Japan, is a product of fermentation using plant-origin lactic acid bacteria. With lower protein content, it is an ideal supplement to the diets of people suffering from chronic kidney disease.
The Philippines has an alarming prevalence of kidney disease, with medical experts saying one Filipino dies from it every hour, making it the seventh leading cause of death in the country. Based on the latest available data from the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, there were 32,077 dialysis patients all over the country in 2015, and the trend shows a 15 percent increase every year in number.
"This is very important -- before, the main cause was chronic glomerulonephritis; now, it's mainly diabetes mellitus and hypertension," Rose Marie Liquete, executive director of NKTI, said of the kidney cases in the Philippines.
Romina Danguilan, deputy director for medical education of the NKTI, said that while protein-reduced rice such as Echigo is theoretically advantageous for kidney patients, the institute has yet to conduct its own study to prove its effectiveness.
According to BiotechJP's Garcia, a five-year study in Japan showed that consumption of Echigo among those subjected to a clinical trial yielded a significant decrease in urinary protein excretion.
Since its launch last year in the Philippines, Echigo, which is sold at a retail price of P55 pesos per pack, has been distributed to a few dialysis centers in Manila.
It is available as well in some branches of one supermarket and through one online store, where Insta Rice and Gohan Lite can also be purchased.
Since it has no added value, Insta Rice is the cheapest at a retail price of P35, while Gohan Lite is sold at P45.
Based on an initial assessment, Gohan Lite has the strongest reception because of its low-calorie content, Garcia said. It is recommended for those with diabetes and on low-caloric diets.
Rice-to-Go, meanwhile, will primarily be marketed to government, specifically the Department of Social Welfare and Development, because it is considered an "emergency rice," intended for emergency and disaster situations. The target retail price is 25 pesos.
Garcia said the company hopes to eventually expand the number of stores that sell their products, as well as their distribution reach.
Based on the current demand, the company can produce an estimated 60,000 packs of all four products in a month.
"If there's need for more, we can add more production staff," Garcia said, adding that in fact, the production plant is currently utilizing only half of its entire space.
While they have apprehensions that their products might not be totally accepted by many Filipinos because "it is a brand new lifestyle" in rice consumption and the price is relatively higher compared to traditionally prepared rice, Garcia said the company draws confidence from the fact that Filipinos are basically rice-eaters, and that the number of health-conscious consumers are growing.
"Eventually, we would like to introduce the 'bottled water' story to the Filipinos. Before, when you bought bottled water, they would say you are crazy because you can just get water from the faucet. But eventually, Filipinos got used to buying bottled water for 20 pesos anywhere. We would want that to happen to our products," she said.
The company, she added, also banks on the growing middle class in the country, and the trend shown by consumers of a known international coffee shop, which started with those from the top two income classes and later expanded to include lower income classes.
Aside from the four products, BiotechJP is currently developing a low-calorie rice grain, as well as more variety of their packed precooked rice that may already include a sauce or viand, an example of which is "adobo rice, which is a tailored fit for Filipinos."