Friday, October 14, 2011

Is Tokyo out of butter? (Again?)

With Nissin, my local supermarket, being out of butter 3 times in a row, I poked around online to see if we are facing an actual butter shortage in Japan. Most of the articles I found were from a shortage in 2008 - I remember the talk of rice and wheat being in short supply at that time, but hadn't been as aware of the butter issue. Planning to open a shop that would be heavily dependent on supplies of raw ingredients has made me a bit more observant it seems.

With a bit more searching I found that a combination of last year's hot summer, which resulted in fewer calves and less milk produced this year, the disposal of milk following the leak from the Fukushima power station, along with restrictions and high taxes on imported butter has indeed lead to a shortage. I found the tone of some of the reports to be over emphatic about the hot summer last year, implying the butter shortage is not related to Fukushima, but at the very least the effect of limits on electricity consumption since the earthquake can't have helped the production / transport/ storage etc.

In the Japanese media, this is being presented as a 'price hike' which sounds less alarming than a food 'shortage' of any kind. This news report in Japanese shows cows affected by heat and then asks a cake shop owner about how the price increase in butter will impact his business. He's mainly optimistic, saying that expensive is better than none at all. The fact is that right now at least domestic butter is absent from my local supermarkets, regardless of how much I might be willing to pay.

Butter/marg mix
When I last visited Nissin, there was a new margarine/butter mix where the butter usually sits, along with extremely expensive blocks of imported butter. An excel sheet I made to calculate how much a given recipe costs to make, shows me that apart from the time taken, it's butter (along with eggs) that is already the most expensive constituent of most cakes, and so having to buy more expensive butter would have quite a significant impact on the cost of production. 
253% more expensive than domestic butter!
For now, I have found that some convenience stores still have domestic butter (sunkus, and 7-11 specifically), and so by shamelessly taking 3 or 4 blocks to the counter and withstanding the unspoken judgements about my diet I've been able to continue baking. When I own a business I'll be buying wholesale rather than from supermarkets, and I read that an emergency import of 2,000 tonnes of butter for commercial use has been authorized to help ease the strain on businesses, which is somewhat reassuring.

I'm counting on butter being back in stock in Japan by the time I'm ready to open my shop, but it has made me aware of the delicate balance my business would be in, reliant on produce that has only a recent history in Japan and has been scarce more than once in the last 3 years.
I'll see if I can ask some business owners if they have been affected by the shortage. I noticed a French restaurant switching to olive oil for the bread rather than little dishes of butter, could that be related? How would I plan for this happening to me? Would I keep a supply frozen? Try making my own? Though reluctant, I guess I should experiment with some of the alternative choices to see the effect on the end product.. but some things just *have* to be made with real butter!

Update! Nissin now has butter:

Slightly more expensive than the usual brand, and only 2/person.

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