May 3, 2017 3:00 pm JST

China crowding Japan out of avocado market

At 200 yen each, avocados no longer go so well with soy sauce

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

Avocado inflation has only scared away some Japanese from their favorite salad ingredient.

TOKYO -- Japanese avocado lovers are feeling the pinch. Prices for the guacamole fruit are hitting record levels due to reduced harvests in Mexico and other major producers. Swelling demand in China and the U.S. is also at play.

The retail price for an avocado in Japan has risen from the 100- to 150-yen ($0.83-1.25) range in March to the 150- to 200-yen range today. And the price is still rising.

Wholesalers say they've never seen avocado prices reach such heights.

Demand for the green smoothie mainstay has surged in Japan the past few years. In 2016, Japan imported 74,000 tons of the fruit, up 2.5 times from a decade earlier.

Demand has risen in other countries, too. In the U.S., consumption has doubled to more than a million tons in the past 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In China, imports reportedly leaped from 4,066 tons in 2014 to more than 25,000 tons in 2016.

The avocado's explosive popularity in China has made Japanese wholesalers nervous. They believe that China could soon take over Japan in avocado consumption.

"It's not just avocados," a representative of a top Japanese avocado importer said. "Demand for any product posts explosive growth once Chinese start buying."

There have been similar episodes before. In 2010, Chinese imports of Bordeaux wines surged, causing a spike in prices and making the renowned reds unaffordable to Japanese oenophiles. Eventually, Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped in and gave Japan a break -- he began cracking down on corruption and ostentatious spending.

Bordeaux wines came down in price.

At supermarkets in Japan, avocado sales have dropped 10% to 20% in the past couple of months because of the high prices. But wholesalers say that decline is small considering how much prices have risen.

Still, they worry "the butter fruit" could soon elude the reach of many Japanese consumers.

This is more serious than it sounds. Eating avocados is no longer an exoticism in Japan. "It's become a staple," said a representative at Global Fruit Co., another avocado importer.

Avocados are especially popular among Japanese women. They are rich in vitamins and minerals and are said to help keep the skin smooth and moist, ease iron deficiencies and lower blood pressure. Avocado salads are easy to make and a favorite among working women who don't have time for elaborate cooking.

In Japan, an avocado salad can be as simple as a sliced avocado with some soy sauce splashed on top.

Avocados are also on the menus of numerous Japanese restaurants. They are served at one of the country's largest coffee and sandwich chains. A representative of the chain said that for now there are no plans to raise prices for avocado items because the operator buys in bulk and sets prices at the start of the business year.

Still, the company is monitoring news about the avocado shortage and is checking how the price situation is affecting the size and quality of the avocados it is receiving.

Most other eateries are also refraining from raising prices of dishes that include avocados, according to wholesalers. But with avocado prices expected to keep rising, at least until new crops arrive in summer, wholesalers wonder how long the restaurant industry can hold out.

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