Seasonal celebrations threatened by nationwide butter shortage

Seasonal celebrations threatened by nationwide butter shortage

TOKYO —

Japan currently has a pretty severe butter shortage and it’s been going on for a long time. For months, grocery stores around the country have been limiting customers to one box of butter at a time, and even then, people are paying hugely inflated prices.

Generally, Japanese cooking doesn’t really use that much butter, so what is all of this stuff being used for exactly? Cakes and cookies. With Christmas just around the corner, and the butter shortage expected to continue for the foreseeable future, a new and very important question has arisen: Will we still be able to eat Christmas cake?

In Japan, the Christmas cake, which unlike the rich dried-fruit cakes found in many countries at this time of year, is usually some kind of soft sponge with cream and strawberries. Strawberries might not sound especially Christmassy, but for many Japanese, a Christmas without this kind of Christmas cake just wouldn’t be the same.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries decided to downsize the number of dairy cows in 2006-2007 due to a decrease in milk consumption. In their efforts to keep us from enjoying our buttery Christmas cakes, they went a little overboard and by 2008, we saw the first butter shortage. It got so bad that in May of this year, they made an emergency decision to import 7,000 tons of butter, but it hardly made a difference.

Christmas is a little over a month away and Japan doesn’t have enough butter for their Christmas cakes. Some bakeries are choosing to replace butter with margarine this year, claiming the slight change in taste will be less noticeable than the potential jacked-up price we would see if they used imported butter. Quite whether this will result in millions of Japanese consumers remarking that they “can’t believe” it’s not butter remains to be seen, but for many shoppers it’ll have to be “marg” or nothing this Christmas.

Still, if cake made with margarine really isn’t your thing, there’s a variety of other Christmas treats you could eat instead, including Christmas-themed Japanese confectioneries and donuts, or you can just go for a Christmas ice-cream cake. Regular cake lovers, keep your hopes up, perhaps there will be a Christmas miracle of a sudden excess of butter in Japan. 

Source: Nikkan Gendai

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  • 11

    ifd66

    The biggest surprise in this article is that any of these cakes have butter in them. I would have assumed they were all made using cheaper margarine.

  • 4

    Stephen Knight

    Japan currently has a pretty severe butter shortage and it’s been going on for a long time.

    Wow, perhaps the sharpest lead-in I've seen in an article ever...

    True, my supermarket has been out of butter for weeks now, but I can go to the Lawson convenience store just down the street here and buy a couple of boxes (of domestic-brand butter) anytime--and the price is only slightly higher than usual. Better purchasing power, perhaps?

  • 14

    Cricky

    The ministry decided? Not the market? From 2006 a mistake was made its now 2014 and the same mistakes? Got to love the centralised idiocy of it all.

  • 2

    Stewart

    OK - I now have an answer to the question about the shortage I couldn't be bothered to ask.

  • 10

    Jaymann

    How utterly appalling to the Japanese consumer who continues to suffer at the hands of japan's archaic and anti competitive market protection. Nz could supply butter to counter all of this shortage. Roll on the TPP!

  • 2

    CrazyJoe

    People now are so callous about high prices that they keep on buying butter.

  • 2

    gaijintraveller

    Is it possible to get margarine in Japan that is not full of unhealthy trans-fat?

  • 4

    el

    I think this is BS and is being engineered by the butter makers to give them a reason to raise prices. The same thing happened a few years ago and lo and behold, butter makers raised their prices at the end and magically butter reappeared in the stores. My local supermarket has butter and so do convenience stores. And yes, I'm shocked that Christmas Cakes here actually use butter too!

  • 7

    kibousha

    According to this article, the shortage is artificial, to inflate prices further. http://www.alterna.co.jp/13436

  • 0

    wildwest

    Marlin would be appaled.

  • 11

    paulinusa

    "The Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries decided to downsize the number of dairy cows in 2006-2007 due to a decrease in milk consumption."

    And to increase milk prices.

  • 6

    JWithers

    Amazing and contemptible at the same time.

    Why is SNOW brand the only one of the shelves. Last I heard Snow Brand had it's scandals that people choose to forget.

    Of course, now it's clear the extent those in power are willing to go to avoid any competition. TPP is a good thing....for the consumer. I guess everybody is nice and rich right now. The economic divide will clearly show who gets to enjoy cookies and cakes this year.

  • -3

    LunarTuner

    Don't worry! Fonterra will come to the rescue with their (un)reasonably priced dairy products!

  • 0

    Stephen Knight

    There's always the French alternative, too--Echire in Marunouchi makes the best butter I've ever tasted, if you're willing to spend almost 2,000 yen for a 250-gram block. (Notthat I could afford such indulgence--I only got to taste some when it was served with an inflight meal on a flight to Canada.)

  • -14

    Elbuda Mexicano

    I wish Japan would just do what the British have been doing for thousands of years, just go back to using LARD! Who really needs butter??

  • 3

    Gaijin Desi

    lets raise your hand and say we are not going to eat cake in coming december and see the magic.

  • -5

    talaraedokko

    I kinda remember a few years ago that the Chinese were buying many farm products. Could this be part of the problem still today? They pay top dollar.

  • -1

    kcjapan

    Please buy Christmas cake with the rich dense dried-fruit and moist cake!

    Try a narrow pan with enough room for a length-wise cleaved Christmas cake, very important to assure even assimilation of favorite liquor, the cake is sliced with a 10cm separation in the center and some edge space.

    Slowly fill center with 50cl of Orange, Cherry, Peach, Ginger or prominent favorite hard liquor that allows for a mild flame off presentation. (This is accomplished with a quick drizzle of high octane brandy et flambe.)

    A one hour prep with three more 50cl slips into the edges will complete a 200cl sponge bath into the Christmas cake.

    Simply present on platter with cleaved cake open for easy serving using tongs. A dash of ginger and ice cream with a sweet douse of liquor is easy and extra service is a fun compliment for home go or for an extra beverage stay. Well done.

  • 0

    FightingViking

    decided to downsize the number of dairy cows in 2006-2007 due to a decrease in milk consumption.

    ...and then they wonder why there are so many broken bones in this country ?

    unlike the rich dried-fruit cake

    "To try it is to adopt it !" Personally, I find Christmas just isn't Christmas with "strawberry topped sponge cake"...

  • -11

    Pandabelle

    I haven't bought any butter in years. Margarine is much cheaper and easier to deal with.

  • 6

    Amidalism

    There is absolutely no reason for this to be happening spare the sheer incompetence of the people at the top. Instead of waiting until it comes to the point that you have to "emergency" import butter, why not get rid of these stupid dairy import laws and have no shortages ever again.

    Just because some farmers are greedy and worried about competition the average person has to suffer? Maybe if they provided enough products at reasonable prices they would maintain customer loyalty and not have to worry about that problem in the first place.

  • 9

    Nessie

    A lesson in what happens when you try to micromanage an economy. About time we had the TPP trade deal.

  • 0

    Elizabeth Heath

    No problems buying butter where I live. It is ridiculously expensive though.

  • 5

    Nessie

    The follow-up question: If Japan is so worried about its food self-sufficiency, what is it doing working to DECREASE its agricultural production?

  • 8

    5petals

    @ Nessie. Couldnt agree more. Go into any Japanese supermarket, regardless of chain or name, and find the same exact products on every shelf. Vendng machines? same thing, Asahi drinks.And the butter shortage? How long has this been going on? I was watching a program where foriegners were being shown a Japanese factory where cucumbers where processed and packaged. They were so amazed at the technology that sized every cucumber and sorted defects. What they didnt see, however, is that you can visit any supermarket in Japan and find the same type of cucumber. No variety. Same with tomatoes and other vegetables. Small selection but high prices.

  • 12

    therougou

    I haven't bought any butter in years. Margarine is much cheaper and easier to deal with.

    And much worse for your health as well.

  • -1

    Goals0

    To guarantee production the goverment sets prices, which if they're not careful can lead to massive overproduction. Rice has the same issue. They paid people not to grow rice. I'm not sure where that one is today. Europe had this problem as well. Butter mountains. Wine lakes.

  • 4

    nandakandamanda

    Watched a program(me) on TV a couple of weeks ago where they interviewed an ex-dairy farmer in Hokkaido and asked him why his farm and equipment are all rusty and disused. He said that it is the same all over Hokkaido. Generally it is very hard work for little profit margin, and the younger generation does not want to take over when the older generation reaches retirement. The number of dairy farms has dropped radically (and here I do not remember the figures), but where there were something like 10,000 10 or 20 years years ago there are now only 3,000 farms producing milk and butter. Forgive inaccuracy in the figures, but the downtrend was of that magnitude and quite obvious to the casual observer.

  • 3

    therougou

    Well I only see 1 brand of butter in my area so its no surprise that they can fix the price at whatever they want. Not sure a "shortage" has anything to do with it.

  • 3

    kickboard

    Same with tomatoes and other vegetables. Small selection but high prices.

    Never been to a yaoya, have you?

  • 1

    John Galt

    Wow, I'm shocked, shocked I say, that government intervention into X industry would have counter-productive effects. Yes, this is what happens when government (or their regulatory cronies) begin setting quotas, fixing prices, and other central - planner machinations.

    Economics in One Lesson - Hazlitt: Read and learn.

  • 2

    sighclops

    5petals has hit the nail on the head. That's business in Japan in a nutshell.

    The worst culprit of them all is pasta sauce. I've lived 4 different prefectures and lo and behold - same Anna Maria (Kagome) pasta sauce. Ridiculous prices, of course.

    BRING ON THE TPP! I'm sick of paying almost ¥500 for a freakin' stick of butter!

  • -2

    harvey pekar

    Butter shortage?! ... How am I supposed to lubricate my arteries and veins?!

  • 2

    Frungy

    The EU has so much butter that it pays farmers to limit their production and actually dumps thousands of tons of butter when there is over production. Just send some of that delicious "Kerry Gold" my way!!

    As for alternatives. I've taken to collecting lard from the Sunday roast. I wouldn't touch margarine if they were giving it away free... Actually that's a lie. An igloo made of margarine would make a fun talking point... Auntie summer.

  • 1

    Christopher Glen

    Yet another reason not to spend Christmas in Japan

  • 5

    Scrote

    Japan is like a communist state sometimes, with bureaucrats deciding production quotas without regard to demand. Eliminate the tariff on butter and let people import it freely. The shortage will no longer be a problem. Sack all the bureaucrats who work in the department of butter production and use the money saved to cut taxes.

  • 1

    Stewart Gale

    I baked a simple madeira cake last week at home and was shocked at the amount of butter needed - 175g for a small cake.

  • 4

    Educator60

    @5petals " Go into any Japanese supermarket, regardless of chain or name, and find the same exact products on every shelf......Vendng machines? same thing, Asahi drinks"

    @sighclops "The worst culprit of them all is pasta sauce. I've lived 4 different prefectures and lo and behold - same Anna Maria (Kagome) pasta sauce"

    I beg to differ and I live in a smallish city in the boondocks with presumably less selection than big cities. Beverage vending machines I've walked by in the last week just off the top of my head: Asahi, Dydo, Kirin, Coca-Cola, university co-op, Acure, Suntory, Otsuka, PokkaSapporo.

    I normally can only get to a few supermarkets: one large national chain and two local chains, and usually only in the evenings when various things are sold out. At the moment I haven't found regular butter for weeks but generally I can choose from a selection of 3 or 4 of: large chain house brand, Snow, Meiji, Morinaga, Yotsuba, Koiwai, or Tokachino, depending on the store.

    Never heard of Anna Maria spaghetti sauce, maybe Kagome Anna Mamma was meant? Anyway, each store has at least 2 or 3 domestic brands plus a couple from Italy.

    I have also frequently gone to supermarkets when on business trips and there was always a readily apparent difference in both brands carried and special items available only locally.

    But back to butter, another factor I saw mentioned on one news report was that dairy farmers are putting their efforts more into items with a faster turnover (milk, yogurt).

    • Moderator

      All readers back on topic please. The subject is butter, not pasta sauce or soft drinks.

  • 4

    gogogo

    TPP would fix this problem

  • -1

    SamuraiBlue

    Japan should cut down the tariff of dairy products to a more managable level but it would also hike up the price of fresh milk and probably yogurt as well since more dairy farmers will go out of business due to the extremely low profit margin . You can import butter by freezing the product but importing fresh milk is not possible without placing rediculous prices for air cargo.

  • -8

    Mennonite Maiden

    soy butter/coconut oil butter/nut butter all of them non-dairy organic butters made at home.

    Ah..the perks of being Vegan.. =)

  • 3

    Jeff Ogrisseg

    There was plenty of butter on the shelves of the local store today, in three different brands. So I'm not buying into rumor of a "severe" shortage. What's next, a red wine shortage before the beaujolais nouveau arrives?

  • 0

    Magnus Roe

    I hadn't noticed any butter shortage, I'll check my local supermarket tonight. I kind of doubt people care that much about the christmas cake though, they could probably inflate the price AND replace the butter with margarine and people would gleefully buy it

  • 4

    Hawkeye

    Butter, there is no shortage. Where does regular butter come from? Cow milk and is there any shortage of milk, cheese, ice cream or yogurt which all are produced with cow milk as their primary ingredient. The answer is no. So why the shortage of butter? It's an artificially created shortage to drive prices up. There should be an official inquiry into this matter by the ministry of dairy products as I am sure japan must have such a unproductive government entity in place. Don't get me wrong cause I love butter, real euro type butter, the type that you can eat an inch (thats 2.54cm) thick on an engurish muffin topped with a slice of Canadian bacon, slab of good English sharp cheddar cheese and an almost fully poached but still slighty runny farm fresh egg. Off to the kitchen to make me one of those delicacies.

  • 1

    lucabrasi

    @Haweye

    Yes there is a shortage of milk; that's precisely the problem. Production is down 14% on its peak level nineteen years ago.

    Not only are there fewer cows, but the hot summer affected their ability to produce milk this year.

  • -1

    SamuraiBlue

    Ice cream has a high profit margin same with yogurt on the otherhand, butter (and cheese) requires large amount of milk to make small portion reducing the profit margin.

  • 2

    nandakandamanda

    lucabrasi, you reminded me that was the other reason they were giving in the TV program(me) on this problem.

    This summer was not so hot for the cows, but the previous couple of summers seriously were, so the fall in milk production back then meant a knock-on effect of less butter produced and stocked for us this year.

  • 2

    5petals

    @scrote,

    Ive had this conversation with many Japanese. Japan does appear to be like a communist country. Collective and conformist. Same products throughout the islands, all covered by a protectionist government.

  • 1

    Nessie

    The number of dairy farms has dropped radically (and here I do not remember the figures), but where there were something like 10,000 10 or 20 years years ago there are now only 3,000 farms producing milk and butter. Forgive inaccuracy in the figures, but the downtrend was of that magnitude and quite obvious to the casual observer.

    This is largely a result of rationalization: fewer farms that are larger and more efficient. It's a good sign.

  • 2

    JustAGoodOleBoy

    I remember well the Great Butter Shortage of 2008. Took signficant measures to procure the supply needed for a successful holiday season baking and cooking at our place.

  • 0

    bjohnson23

    I have to wonder butter shortage, company share holder/price manipulation

  • 3

    John Galt

    Want butter? Go to Costco. No problem!

  • 2

    wtfjapan

    theres only a shortage and high prices because Japan refuses to let foreign butter in without the high tarriffs and conditions attached. enough of this BS join the TPP or GTFO and continue to screw the population on affordable/quality foods from countires that can supply it.

  • 0

    Nessie

    From the Mainichi: "The government is set to import butter and powdered skim milk for commercial use due to a domestic shortage of butter. The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the problem." As usual, corporate Japan is looked after, which the average Jo gets stiffed.

    http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20141025p2a00m0na001000c.html

    Guess what the TIME magazine headline was back in May 2008.

    Hint: Japan's Butter Meltdown

  • 0

    Educator60

    John Galt "Want butter? Go to Costco. No problem!"

    Seeing as how getting to and from a Costco would involve a two day trip, that's not much of a solution. I'd rather buy my butter locally and have it not melt before I get home.

  • 0

    Magnus Roe

    If your butter melts on your way home, you might want to be more conservative with your heating settings!

  • 0

    Educator60

    Magnus Roe at Nov. 21, 2014 - 11:57AM JST "If your butter melts on your way home, you might want to be more conservative with your heating settings!"

    Huh? Last time I looked heating settings on public transportation were not passenger controlled.

  • 0

    Stuart hayward

    It's funny this article describes the exact reason for previous butter shortages but says NOTHING about the cause of this one. gogogo: the TPP would fix this problem. Lol, I wouldn't be supprised if the TPP are one of the causes of this problem, the dairy industry just happens to be the biggest sticking point.

  • 0

    5petals

    @John Galt "Want butter? Go to Costco. No problem!"

    Exactly, and there lies the solution to the protectionist misery that most Japanese agree to. Shortage of domestic supplied products? No problem, as we have an open market with foriegn supplies as well, such as Costco.

    If foriegn suppliers were allowed to enter every shelf that is accessed by domestic suppliers, you would see a huge increase in sales, thus tax revenue as well. A few domestics would go under, so what, its economics. Most would still remain loyal to those very Japanese brands. You can even find them in Costco.

    Instead we see the gaman and suffer until things get better attitude.

  • 0

    globalwatcher

    FYI just in case.

    Please buy only Organic Butter from USA.

  • 0

    igloobuyer

    Why don't they import? Massive tarifs that's why;

    Read on (Guardian)

    As recently as 1985 about 82,000 households ran dairy farms with a combined 2.11 million cows, according to the ministry. That has plummeted to just 19,000 households and 1.4 million animals. Strict regulation and high tariffs imposed on the imported version mean retailers are struggling to meet the shortfall by bringing in more butter from overseas.

    Butter is considered a “national trade item”, allowing officials to impose high tariffs on imports.

    Dairy farmers say that cloak of protection could disappear if Japan signs up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade pact with the US, Australia and other Asia-Pacific nations.

    Nonetheless, Japan was forced to import 7,000 tonnes of butter in May, and a further 3,000 tonnes in September.

    Another rare foray into the overseas dairy larder looks inevitable with Christmas just a few weeks away.

  • -1

    HaraldBloodaxe

    Well, Christmas has been and gone, and you're still only allowed to buy one stick per family at my local supermarket. This is preposterous for a supposedly developed economy.

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