McDonald’s Japan, which is 49% owned by the multinational burger chain, will have been looking forward to putting an end to an annus horribilis, but a shortage of United States-grown potato imports means it has been forced to ration fries by limiting customers to just the smallest of its four portion sizes.
It has blamed the shortage on a longrunning industrial dispute between longshoremen at America’s west coast ports who handle much of the country’s exports to Asia and port operators.
The former, who handle around half of the United States’s foreign trade, have accused dockworkers of deliberately slowing shipments, though unions say the ports were strained by a lack of capacity to begin with.
Waning since October
The disruptive action means the fast food giant has been receiving only around half of its potato orders since late October.
McDonald’s Japan’s policy is to use only potatoes grown in the US for its potato products. Customers at the chain’s 3,200 Japanese restaurants—McDonald’s second-biggest market after the US—can still buy multiple small portions.
The so-called “mega potato”, which is available in Japan as a portion equivalent to two servings of large fries in other markets, is the company’s highest-calorie menu item ever, and appeal’s the the country’s seeming obsession with French fries. The size weighs just under half a kilo per portion and will provide the consumer with 1,142 calories, according to an analysis by Japan Today.
Lotteria, a South Korean burger chain with a large number of outlets in Japan, is also struggling to secure supplies, according to reports in the Japanese news media, though it has taken to mocking its American rival by assuring customers through its promotional signing: “We’ll serve you any size of fries you want!”
It doesn’t look like the shortage will end soon as the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port employers, signalled that it was unlikely they would reach a settlement with the dock workers.
“Business is being lost, and we are concerned that the damage is permanent and shippers will be fearful to put their trust in the West Coast ports going forward,” it said in a recent update.
Latest challenge for McDonald’s
Earlier this year, McDonald’s Japan hit the headlines after it was found its restaurants had inadvertently using expired meat after a Chinese scandal exposed an American-owned processor in Shanghai had been altering production dates before shipping it to local and Japanese fast food chains.
The company has since been attempting to restore consumer confidence in its menus and in October—ahead of the potato shortage—was forced to warn shareholders that it was expecting its first annual net loss in 11 years.
To maintain even limited stocks, McDonald’s has resorted to airlifting thousands of tonnes of potatoes to Japan, and has even ordered exports from east-coast ports in the US, which cost more and take longer to arrive.