Container shipping crisis bites chicken and wine lovers in Japan

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TOKYO – Japanese consumers can count the toll of disruptions in global supply chains and shipping on their plates.

The country’s largest convenience store chain, 7-Eleven, has stopped selling fried chicken on skewers – a popular snack – in some areas. Meanwhile, some restaurants have limited poultry offerings to a paltry one skewer per customer.

Chicken has become the most visible example of Japanese shortages originating in Southeast Asia, where the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down poultry processing plants at the main supplier, Thailand. But wine, shrimp and other products have also become scarce or more expensive, a trend that threatens hopes of a recovery in consumer spending.

Customer traffic has resumed in Japan since the lifting of the state of emergency linked to the coronavirus, upsetting a delicate balance between supply and demand in the food industry. As cities ease coronavirus-related restrictions on restaurant opening hours and alcohol sales, a Yakitori The chicken restaurant chain told customers they were only allowed to have one skewer of chicken skin each.

“We need to consider switching providers,” a spokesperson said.

A shortage of chicken has forced some Yakitori restaurants to introduce a limit of one skewer of chicken skin per person.

Italian restaurant chain Saizeriya has reduced its portion offerings for a popular spicy chicken dish since September 21. Now, instead of five pieces of chicken, customers only get four.

Part of the reason for the chicken bottleneck in Thailand is the shortage of migrant workers from neighboring countries, which prevents processing plants from quickly regaining capacity.

A shipping crisis caused by congested ports and a shortage of shipping containers have compounded the problem. Japanese stocks of imported chicken in August were down 20% from levels a year earlier, according to Tokyo-based Agriculture and Livestock Industries Corp.

“Some products have been out of stock since September,” a market source said.

Frozen vendor Nichirei struggled to find Cambodian workers for its Thai subsidiary. Plant utilization declined, forcing the company to sell a new line of frozen fried chicken to limited markets this fall. Industry peers Nippon Suisan Kaisha and Ajinomoto Frozen Foods have also been affected.

Delays in shipping containers have impacted other foods. Earlier this month, KFC stopped selling French fries at around 20% of its restaurants, mostly in Tokyo, due to the blockage of potato shipments. All French fries sales resumed on Friday thanks to recent arrivals at the port.

Seafood retailer Maruha Nichiro has had to deal with delays in imports of shrimp from processing plants in Vietnam. It usually takes 22 days for the product to reach Japan, but now the company says it has 10 days to two weeks behind shipments.

The Mercian beverage group halted sales of 10 Franzia wines from early September. The company aims to resume sales soon, but “we don’t see a stable supply for the foreseeable future,” a spokesperson said.

Beef and onions – two key ingredients in gyudon bowls of beef on rice, a staple of Japanese fast food, are rising in price.

For American beef in a short plate used in gyudon bowls, the wholesale price is now hovering around 1,075 yen ($ 9.47) per kilogram, nearly double what it was last summer. Tokyo-based traders of peeled onions grown in China and used in many restaurants now charge 95 yen per kilogram, up 20% from the previous year.

Many in the industry believe supply chain disruptions will drag on and on. The potential for a resurgence of coronavirus infections in winter adds to the uncertain outlook.

Restaurant operator Watami said large chains typically have medium to long-term contracts with suppliers. They are high volume buyers with great bargaining power. But “if the higher prices persist for six months or a full year, some kind of impact will appear.”

The pandemic prompted the Japanese to cut spending. Rising prices in restaurants or supermarkets may slow down an expected recovery in consumption following the lifting of the coronavirus state of emergency.

“Consumers may not be able to buy the items they want,” said Koya Miyamae, senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

“Assuming infections are brought under control, there will be a global restaurant recovery and demand will increase,” Miyamae added. “If supplies decline due to a container shortage or other factors, product shortages are likely to continue.”


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