"I often have toast for breakfast, and it's a problem if there's no butter," a 40-ish homemaker tells Friday (June 19). "My son in primary school often complains when I can't serve it to him."
These days it's become common in Japanese supermarkets to see signs posted that read "Butter limited to one item per customer." The problem first surfaced in 2013, and butter has gradually vanished from store shelves.
For the nation's confectionery manufacturers, though, it's becoming a matter of life and death.
"To make shortbread, we use about 250 kilograms of butter a month," says Kazufumi Hondo, president of Hokkaido-based confectioner Paris 16e. "The year before last, we sold a 450 gram loaf for 480 yen. Now it's 580 yen. To make up for the butter shortfall, from last year we began producing our own from dairy cream."
What's behind the butter shortage? Friday blames it on the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and a group called the Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corporation (Nochiku Sangyo Shinko Kiko), which is largely made up of "amakudari" -- retired bureaucrats on their second careers -- which has been working at expanding certain vested interests.
"Three 'inane plans" being pushed by the Agriculture Ministry have caused the supply and demand to collapse," says Yoshihiro Asakawa, a journalist covering agribusiness.
The first of the three "inane plans" was the subsidy system for processed dairy products, which at the moment is only given to producers in Hokkaido. Dairy farmers receive a 12.9 yen subsidy for each kilogram of raw milk used in the making of butter. As Hokkaido produces 80% of Japan's butter, Asakawa explains, the policy has led to an over-concentration in one part of the country. So if Hokkaido dairy production is even slightly destabilized, it will result in a drop in butter production.
The second problem, according to Asakawa, stems from the subsidies for cheese. As Japan keeps importing more cheese from abroad, the ministry has shown stubborn determination to develop its domestic industry, offering a subsidy of 15.53 yen per kilogram of raw milk used in the making of cheese. And in addition, half the cost of building production plants is covered by government subsidies.
The Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corporation has been encouraging production of cheese to the tune of 31 billion yen in government subsidies. After the butter shortage became severe last year, the bureaucrats tried to backtrack and persuade the cheese makers to shift their raw materials to address the butter shortfall, but other bureaucrats told them not to bother, claiming if consumers could get their hands on more butter they'd hoard it.
As opposed to production of 64,800 tons of butter this year, total demand is expected to reach 74,700 tons, leaving the shortfall to be made up by imports. But then the Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corporation -- which is the sole entity authorized to import butter -- stepped in with "inane plan" number 3. This involves piling an additional markup on top of the existing 35% import duty (which gets tacked on to imports above 600 tons per year). The end result is a fourfold rise in the retail price of a kilogram of butter, from about 500 yen to 2,000 yen. Thus for all intents and purposes pricing it out of the market.
Friday notes that of the 10 directors of the Agriculture & Livestock Industries Corporation, five are former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrats, and one is an "old boy" from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The corporation's director pulls in a cozy annual salary of around 16.72 million yen. Enough, the magazine notes bitterly, to let him live off the fat of the land, while the hoi polloi are obliged to make do with less... and less.© Japan Today