Why a bag of chips was selling for $12 in Japan

A mad rush amid a potato crunch.
A mad rush amid a potato crunch.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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A poor harvest season is biting into snack shelves in Japan.

On Monday, April 10, Calbee announced that it would temporarily discontinue the sale of 15 varieties of potato chips. The snack maker reeled back supply in light of typhoons and flooding that destroyed the crops in Hokkaido last August. The region was the source of nearly 80% of the country’s potatoes. Following Japan’s worst harvest in 34 years, rival Koike-ya also ended seven snack products and temporarily suspended the sales of nine others.

The potato chip crunch led to panic buying. Some snack lovers even resorted to buying in bulk. And once the supermarket shelves were swiped clean, online prices skyrocketed, increasing six-fold in some cases. A bag of Calbee’s pizza-flavored potato chips, which typically retails for less than 200 yen (around $2), was selling for about 1,250 yen (around $12) on Yahoo Japan’s auction website Friday, Bloomberg reported.

Tokyo-based Calbee controls 73% of the market for potato chips in Japan.

“We’re doing everything we can to resume sales again,” company spokeswoman Rie Makuuchi told Bloomberg, adding that the company will look to import potatoes from the US and ask potato farmers in the southern island of Kyushu to harvest their crop earlier than scheduled. However, market access limits on how much fresh potato can be imported in Japan is also keeping the company from amping up production.

Chips may have been the first casualty, but the potato crisis isn’t going to end there. The food shortage will likely make its way into the kitchens of fast-food chains and restaurants. With potato prices climbing up 20% each month, the eateries will want to turn toward imports too. Alas, they can’t: Fresh potatoes from the US can only be used for chip manufacturing (pdf) in Japan.

Correction (4:14pm EDT): Pepsi owns a 20% stake in Calbee. A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Calbee was wholly owned by Pepsi.