National

Spud shortage in Japan makes potato chips a hot commodity

by Shoko Oda

Bloomberg

Demand for potato chips surged in Japan this week, with products on offer for six times their retail price online after snack maker Calbee Inc. halted the sale of some of its most popular chip brands.

Calbee’s pizza-flavored chips were selling for about ¥1,250 on Yahoo Japan Corp.’s auction website Friday. One bag usually sells for less than ¥200. Photos of near-empty shelves at their supermarkets were trending on Twitter.

The crunch came after Calbee warned Monday that it will temporarily halt the sale of 15 different kinds of potato chips due to a bad crop in Hokkaido, a key potato-producing region. The island was hit by a record number of typhoons last year. Calbee, which has a market value of ¥507.9 billion and is 20 percent owned by PepsiCo Inc., has a 73 percent share of the potato chip market.

Chips are a big deal here, and senbei rice crackers and Pocky sticks are also popular. Calbee’s potato-snack products were the most and second-most popular snacks in a TV Asahi poll of 10,000 people and 13 confectionery makers last year, and the subject of a prime-time show that lasted more than two hours.

While the focus has been on potato chips following Calbee’s announcement, the shortage may spread to fast-food chains and restaurants that rely on spuds for their dishes and become Japan’s “potato crisis,” according to the Nikkei newspaper.

“We’re doing everything we can to resume sales again,” said Rie Makuuchi, a spokeswoman for Tokyo-based Calbee.

She said the company will consider using more imported potatoes from the United States and ask potato farmers in Kyushu to harvest their crop earlier than scheduled. Makuuchi also cited regulatory hurdles, which limit the amount of imported potatoes that can be used in products, as partly responsible for the shortage.

It’s not the first time Japan has seen a shortage of food staples — a declining number of dairy farmers and lack of imports due to high tariffs has led to butter shortages in the past, accompanied by exhaustive media coverage.

Smaller potato chip rival Koike-ya Inc. has also halted the sale of nine snack products. The company only uses domestic potatoes and therefore will not rely on imports, according to spokesman Kazuya Obata. Both Koike-ya and Calbee said they are not sure when sales will resume.

Twitter users sent encouraging tweets to Calbee, which apologized for the crunch via its official Twitter account. If nothing else, the shortage appeared to remind people how much they like their potato chips.

“I realized how addicted I was to potato chips after the halt,” one person tweeted. “I’ll be waiting for sales to resume. Hang in there!”

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