Butter shortage in Japan

Apparently, the message has spread all over: from the first page of Le Monde, to a bunch of internet news services no one knows about, to blogs of frustrated gaijin and daily sulking of Japanese housewives taking a deep pretentious breath over one of those “Please be kind enough to forgive us for the lack of butter supply” notes.

And well, this is the reality right now. There hasn’t been any domestic butter in any of the 3 local supermarkets in my home town for the past 2 weeks and 3 days. Today, at 7am, I finally saw 3 packs.

It cost 404YEN ($4) for a 200g package, which is exacty 100YEN more than I used to pay “back in the day”… which was a month ago. That’s 1/3 more than the first price. Which is what, a 33% increase? Sweet.

I read a bunch of articles on the internet searching for an explanation of such a strange shortage. Where I come from, butter is dirt cheap, there are about 20 different companies producing it and was there to be a shortage, my grandparents would surely be able to make enough for the whole neighbourhood in their own kitchen.

Anyway, so WHY is there a shortage?

  • When Japan suffered an overproduction of milk in 2006, the government ordered about 1, 000 tons of raw milk poured down the drain and dairy cows slaughtered to protect the dairy farmers and keep the prices up. It takes more than 2 years for a calf to reach the age for milking, so there’s a natural time delay.

  • The tariff on dairy imports is extremely high (until recently nearly 30% for butter), so foreign alternatives are not always available or in that case, affordable. In Nissin supermarket, imported French butter costs around 2,000yen ($20) for a 200g pack.

  • Australia has been suffering from droughts , which means lack of cattle feed exports to SE Asia. Moreover, the demand for dairy products is increasing in rapidly developing economies like India and China, meaning there’s more competition for imports from Australia, so even less feed or even raw milk.

  • Dairy producers tend to allocate more raw milk to cream and milk based drinks which are more profitable than butter.

[ There are other arguments out there, some saying that the excess supply of milk in 2006 was due to low birth-rate and thus decreased milk consumption at schools, as well as negative publicity on how milk is bad for us like the hit book “The lifestyle that does not make you sick” by Shintani Hiromitsu (and we all know how strong the “crowd instinct” in among the Japanese), or some say that bread consumption has increased in Japan and thus the need for butter, or that dairy exports from France are no longer subsidised and re-allocated for domestic consumption… etc ]

Now the dilemma… will Japan slash the sky-high tariffs in order to have the necessary supply not only for consumers, but also to protect businesses like numerous bakeries and other food producers?

It said on the news the other day, that bakeries are now getting only half, if not less, of their normal supply of butter. Apparently, that results in reduced output of croissants in order to maintain the variety of other products.

Afterall, Japan doesn’t traditionally have very strong ties to butter. The butter consumption in Japan is about 0.8kg per person per year, which is ten times less than that in France. So what does this shortage really mean for an average consumer…? Is it just a psychological threat to the general quality of life or do they really need their butter?

Apparently, according to a government poll 80% of Japanese feel frightened about what the future holds concerning food supply…

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