Thursday, January 12, 2017

Open Sesame

In an interview reported earlier this week, India's Minister for Commerce and Industry, Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, requested Japan to take steps to increase Indian exports to Japan of sesame seeds, Surimi fish and generic drugs.

This was quite puzzling. Why were two specific items - "sesame seeds" and "Surimi fish" - mentioned in the same breath as Generic Drugs, which is a whole category in itself?

Perhaps it had something to do with the commercial value of the items being imported by Japan...

Sure enough, it turns out that Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of sesame seeds. It is mainly sourced from African countries. Nigeria is, by far, the biggest source, accounting for 28% all sesame seed imports valued at about JPY 11.4 billion (USD 96 million or INR 656 Crores in 2014). This means that Japan imports seeds worth about USD 343 million annually!

In recent years, India too has seen a sharp rise in sesame seed production. In 2014-15, over 0.43 million tonnes was produced, mainly in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. However India has not had much success in exporting the seeds to Japan. This is apparently because of high pesticide residue levels.

In other words, it is India that needs to take adequate steps to ensure that the sesame seeds it produces, is not only cost competitive, but also meets phytosanitary standards in the export markets.

The second item - Surimi fish - . I had heard of "Surmai" (Indo-Pacific Mackarel) but not this one.

It turns out that Surimi not a type of fish but something that Japan exports to other countries - especially USA. It is the term used for  "minced fish paste, made from a cheap fish in abundant supply, usually Alaskan pollock, frequently mixed with sugar and sorbitol, a sweetener. The paste is combined with other varieties of fish and fish flavorings, preservatives such as sodium tripolyphosphate and binders such as wheat flour or egg white, and then restructured and colored to look like higher- priced crab, scallops, shrimp or lobster." 

So, is this a case of a minister who was not properly briefed, or was it the IANS/Business Standard reporter who misquoted what has actually transpired?

Either way this is a fine example of the cross-talk, and communication gaps, not only within India, but also between the two countries.


* BS (2017) -

* Surimi exports from Japan to USA -
* (BS, 2014) - Sesame production in India -

* BS (2016) -

* CEPA - RIS Report 2016

* Mint (2014) -

-  About Sesame seeds -

* IARI - All India Network Project on Pesticide Residues -

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