Snack Foods

Japan suffering dire potato chip shortage, some bags selling for $14

Akira Matsumoto, chairman and chief executive of Calbee Inc., speaks during an interview with Reuters at the company headquarters in Tokyo, Japan January 15, 2016.

Akira Matsumoto, chairman and chief executive of Calbee Inc., speaks during an interview with Reuters at the company headquarters in Tokyo, Japan January 15, 2016.  (REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

A compromised crop of potatoes on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido has forced one the country’s largest chip manufacturers to halt production of some of its most popular flavors. Now the country is facing a drastic shortage of the snack, with prices of some bags soaring as high as 1500 yen, or about $14.

An unprecedented series of typhoons last summer battered Hokkaido – a key spud-producing region – and decimated the island’s potato crop, which has led to a nationwide scarcity of the tasty tuber. Now Calbee, Japan's largest snack food manufacturer, has been forced to halt the sale of 15 types of chips.

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

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Makuuchi added that Calbee was mulling over importing potatoes from the U.S. and has already pleaded with potato farmers in the southern island of Kyushu to harvest their crop earlier than scheduled. Japan, however, has strict regulatory hurdles that limit the amount of imported potatoes that can be used in products. Makuuchi added that this regulatory hurdle has exacerbated the shortage.

Photos posted on social media show shelves at supermarkets and local grocers devoid of chips and reports have surfaced that bags of Calbee’s pizza-flavored chips are selling for between 1,250 and 1,500 yen ($12 to $14) on Yahoo Japan Corp.’s auction website. The bags normally retail for around 130 yen-- less than $1.20.

Besides the online auctions, a thriving black market chip trade has cropped up in areas most affected by the shortage.

In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, reports have surfaced of a man hocking bags of pizza-flavored chips for around 800 yen and store owners are attempting to dissuade hoarders and resellers with signs that read, “Limit one bag per customer.”

While not all brands and flavors have been as hard hit by the potato shortage (plum-flavored chips, anyone?), the spud scarcity has deeply affected Calbee’s bottom-line, which reported a 3 percent drop in its stock on Japan’s Nikkei and competitor, Koike-ya, saw its stock drop 8 percent following a similar announcement.

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In the land that produces such high-end culinary delicacies like sushi, shabu-shabu and yakitori, it may seem strange that a potato chip shortage has been deemed a national crisis-- but this classic snack food is an even bigger deal in Japan than it is in the United States.

Even rice crackers and Pocky sticks take a backseat to chips in Japan, where a recent TV Asahi poll of 10,000 people found that Calbee’s chips were the first and second most popular snack in the country – an issue that warranted a primetime television special of more than two hours.

If there is one upside to the chip crisis, it's that people in Japan have come to terms with how dependent they've become on their favorite crunchy snack.

“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!”