Japan is in the grip of a major potato chips crisis.
Shelves are empty in many stores, with popular brands halting sales and no sign when they will return. Japanese consumers have been stocking up on the affected chips wherever they can, bulk-buying at sometimes inflated prices. According to the Fuji News Network, 20 bags of the popular pizza-flavored chip “Pizza Potato” were being sold online for 120,000 yen ($1,100) on Thursday.
On social media, Japanese shoppers have been sharing photographs of barren shelves, gossiping about where stray bags might be found.
Others have posted images of themselves hoarding bags or of the high prices some chips are reaching on auction sites. To give some context, bags of Pizza Potato like those below usually retail for less than 200 yen ($1.80).
The problem stems from bad weather that hit Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's major islands, last year. Hokkaido, a major agricultural hub, was hit by a record-breaking four typhoons in August, wreaking havoc on the island's crops.
This is a major problem for chip companies; according to Nikkei, 80 percent of Japan's potatoes are grown on the island. A representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told state broadcaster NHK that the amount of harvested potatoes in Hokkaido in 2016 was 10 percent less than the previous year.
Panic didn't fully set in until Monday, when snack company Calbee announced that it would be suspending all sales of Pizza Potato brand chips and other lines April 22. After sales surged, Calbee moved forward the suspension of sales to Wednesday. In total, 33 items were being eliminated.
Calbee spokesperson Marina Fukaya said that 60 percent of the potatoes the company uses come from Japan, and that while Calbee had looked into importing more potatoes, “their quality didn't match what we wanted.” Fukaya said that the company apologized for the panic its move had caused, but right now it didn't know when they could expect the discontinued lines to return.
“We’ve seen customers’ reactions on Twitter and in other places and realize the seriousness of the situation,” Fukaya said. "[Calbee] would really like to prevent this shortage from lasting long, but right now we have no outlook on when we can actually resume the sales.”
Calbee isn't the only company hit by the shortage. Another snack manufacturer, Koikeya, has suspended the sales of nine items and discontinued seven items, according to NHK, and there is widespread suspicion that the problem may spread to other brands and other forms of potato-based food.
While no one is expecting riots on the streets quite yet, the situation does point toward some potential problems in the future for Japan. The country has long kept relatively protectionist policies in place for agriculture, but global warming has raised the possibility that domestic produce could be seriously affected by freak weather events more often.
At a supermarket in Tokyo, Fuji News Network reported Thursday that shoppers were buying multiple packets of chips. “I heard they would be gone so I bought them together,” one shopper told a reporter, suggesting that the chips would be a souvenir for their grandson.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.
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