Japanese importers cope with U.S. product shortages

AP Photo/Koji Sasahara In this Feb. 16 photo, a container ship is docked at a port in Tokyo. The flow of agricultural goods imported to Japan has reduced by a work slowdown at West Coast ports. It was part of a months-long contract dispute between port operators and dock workers.

TOKYO — Japanese importers have switched from buying U.S. commodities or shipped them by air or through alternative ports to get around shortages caused by the West Coast dockworker dispute.

“The problem has become worse as the slowdown continued and inventories within Japan have been depleted,” said Jeff McNeil, president of the Tokyo-based marketing company Market Makers. The company represents the California Table Grape Commission, National Dry Bean Council, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the Raisin Administrative Committee.

“Some (importers) may be looking at alternatives, such as shipping from non-West Coast ports,” McNeill said.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association reached a tentative contract agreement on Feb. 20, but it still needs to be ratified, and it may take months to clear the backlog of containers stacked up at West Coast ports.

Other importers are switching to commodities from other countries.

That may become the case for hay, said Hiroyuki Nakamura, assistant general affairs section manager for Zenrakuren, the National Federation of Dairy Cooperative Associations, which represents 181 dairy co-ops.

“As there are no problems in shipping from Australia, it is possible we may switch to importing from Australia,” Nakamura said.

Because of work slowdowns, most U.S. hay orders since October have been delayed two to three weeks and sometimes up to one month, he said, adding that inventories here have become tighter each day.

“It will take two to three months for things to return to normal here” now that a new contract has been reached, Nakamura said.

Beef is another case in point. Importers have not been able to get U.S. refrigerated pork and beef as planned, and shipments of frozen pork have been delayed, said Tatsuo Iwama, secretary-general of the 26-member Japan Meat Traders Association.

Canadian and Mexican refrigerated pork shipments have also been impacted. In some cases, the pork reaches the limit as chilled product and must be frozen while aboard the ships at sea, called “chilled-fro,” Iwama said.

Meat Export Federation Japan technical services senior director Susumu Harada said converting fresh meat into chill-fro product hurts quality.

“Some chilled product users are forced to sell chill-fro product at a discount, facing a profit loss and price disturbance,” Harada said.

Meat shipment delays and cancellations have occurred, while some orders have been flown to Japan to meet delivery deadlines despite the higher shipping costs, he said.

Japanese users are taking every possible measure to minimize the impact by sourcing from alternative sources such as domestic pork and beef producers and beef from Australia, Harada said.

Japanese importers worry that if the delays persist they may lose the peak spring sales opportunities, he said.

“If the Japanese trade foresees this, they would be forced to switch from U.S. meat to other sources,” Harada said.

McDonald’s Japan faced a french fry potato shortage, forcing it to limit french fry sales to small orders only from Dec. 17 through Jan. 4.

The company resolved the problem by air freighting 1,000 tons of french fries to Japan, followed by sea shipments from the East Coast totaling 1,600 tons at the end of January, spokeswoman Kokoro Toyama said.

McDonald’s is now coping with the crisis by working with importers, shipping companies, field suppliers and McDonald’s outlets in other countries, Toyama said.

The slowdowns had little effect on other U.S. products the company uses, as their overall consumption is small compared to that of potatoes.

“As we have made sure to have extra inventory, there has been little influence” of the slowdown on the availability of other products, Toyama said.

Jun Kamoshida, president of marketing company J Plus, which represents Western Growers, an alliance of California and Arizona vegetable growers, said some vegetable shipments have been delayed.

Almond imports, which go through the Port of Oakland, have also been delayed, said Blue Diamond Growers’ Japan representative Eiichi Fujimoto.

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