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Butter spread thin in Japan

The shortage affects grocery shoppers and bakeries alike, in a country where fine foods are prized.

May 18, 2008|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — The food shortage that has hit Japan is announced by the glaring gap on supermarket shelves next to the margarine and the sour cream and just above the cheese.

The butter shelf is empty.

The rich yellow stuff has all but vanished from grocery stores across Japan, with the world's second-biggest economy, where fine foods are prized and aisles otherwise groan with abundance. Some stores have tried to ration the few bricks that occasionally arrive by limiting customers to a pack or two, but in most places merchants have been reduced to posting signs apologizing for having none.

Nor does anyone know when butter will be back. Japanese milk production has dropped over the last two years, leaving less available to be churned into butter.

Even bakeries that buy in bulk are finding it hard to get enough, which crimps their ability to turn out the croissants, cakes and quiches that have shouldered their way into the Japanese diet.

"We're in trouble," says Seiko Nakano, 27, who runs Levain, a small but well-known French bakery in a residential neighborhood of Tokyo, who has been told she will not receive any more butter until Tuesday, a month later than expected.

In an attempt to stretch its stock, the bakery has cut down on the number of pies it produces and cut out the extra croissants it usually bakes for the weekend rush.

"We've had to come up with some new items that use less butter, like cookies," Nakano says, standing in front of cleaned-out shelves on a weekday afternoon. "But you're talking about flavor. How can you replace butter?"

As global food shortages and ballooning prices are rocking the desperately poor from Africa to Southeast Asia, Japan's pastry problems qualify as barely more than an inconvenience. No one expects the famously controlled Japanese to riot in the refrigerated sections of supermarkets.

But the case of the disappearing butter has unnerved people here, delivering a psychological blow to shoppers utterly unaccustomed to dealing with shortages.

The butter deficit arises from a convergence of market factors that has chased hundreds of domestic dairy farmers out of business in the last two years. The sequence began when Japanese consumers began to drink less milk, a decline that coincided with a deluge of media coverage airing claims that milk is bad for your health.

Experts say consumption also has been affected by a low birthrate, which means fewer elementary school students getting a free daily carton.

The shrinking demand left the country so awash in milk two years ago that producers on the northern island of Hokkaido were dumping it down sewers. A Hokkaido beer company tried to use some of the excess by brewing a low-malt beer that was one-third milk. Called "bilk" and described as having a sweet taste, the concoction didn't catch on.

But though popularity has declined for milk as a beverage, its use in the production of cheese is expected to jump 15% this year, and demand for the less profitable butter holds steady. The result, the Japanese dairy association explains, is that there is not much milk left to make butter.

"We have plenty of milk; just no butter," dairy deliveryman Kazunari Shimakura says as he unloads cartons of milk outside Levain. Shimakura had never seen a shortage in his 20 years of delivering supplies. When he parks his truck these days, people come up to ask whether he can sell them a pack or two of butter on the side.

Last month, the government stepped in to urge the country's four largest dairy product companies to churn out more butter. And the agriculture board is moving up its scheduled purchases of butter imported from Australia and elsewhere by six months in an attempt to get some back on the shelves. Japan imports about 10% of its butter, but usually does not go to international markets until fall.

This year's butter imports are expected to hit an all-time high and are almost certain to send prices sharply higher.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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