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Japan facing massive potato chip shortage

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Demand for potato chips has surged in Japan this week, with products on offer for 6 times their retail price online after Japanese snack company Calbee Inc. halted the sale of some of its most popular chip brands, reported Bloomberg (US).

Calbee’s pizza-flavored chips were going for about 1,250 yen ($12) on Yahoo Japan Corp.’s auction website Friday. One bag usually sells for less than 200 yen. Photos of near-empty shelves at their local supermarkets were trending on Twitter.

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

Potato chips are a big deal in Japan, a country also known for its senbei rice crackers and Pocky sticks. 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 primetime show that lasted more than two hours.

Typhoon damage in Shimizu, Hokkaido, last summer. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
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 in what appears to be shaping up to be the nation’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 U.S. and ask potato farmers in the southern island of Kyushu to harvest their crop earlier than scheduled. She 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’s 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 9 snack products. The company only uses domestic potatoes and therefore won’t rely on imports, according to spokesman Kazuya Obata. Both Koike-ya and Calbee said they aren’t 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 liked 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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