Japan has a milk problem. There's too much of it

PHOTO: Unsplash

A government campaign in Japan urging people to drink more milk to help the domestic dairy industry tide over a supply glut has not gone down well with some consumers.

The oversupply crisis this winter was triggered by a sharp drop in milk consumption as schools which provide individual cartons of milk to children as part of their lunches are closed for the holidays.

The sector's problems were also compounded by a decline in sales as many shops and restaurants - already reeling from pandemic-related curbs - closed for a series of national holidays.

Another factor that contributed to the surplus supply was Japanese cows produced more milk during this year's relatively cool summer months and the industry warned that farmers could be forced to discard as much as 5,000 tonnes of raw milk - equivalent to 5 million one-litre cartons - if consumers do not buy more.

To stimulate consumption, the Japan Dairy Association launched a social media campaign under the #1L per day hashtag, which received a warm welcome from the cattle farmers who pledged to buy an extra litre of milk every day between Dec 25 and Jan 3.

The industry body also called on parents to purchase milk for their children, dairy workers to encourage their friends to buy milk and released recipes for meals that use large amounts of milk.

The campaign got a boost from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his cabinet members as well.

"We would like the population to co-operate in drinking an extra cup of milk than you normally would and to make use of milk products when cooking," Kishida told reporters last week.

But some have questioned the government's support for the initiative which also saw agriculture minister Genjiro Kaneko and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike downing glasses of milk at a press conference on December 17.

"My daughter likes cereal for breakfast and often has a mug of milk, but I don't use much milk otherwise. So I'm not sure if we would be able to consume any more if we bought it," said Takako Tomura, a housewife from Kanagawa prefecture.

"But is it strange that the government is leading this campaign to promote drinking milk?" she asked.

"I don't think I have heard of something like this before. And does it mean that any time a business gets into trouble in the future, the government will start telling us to buy their products?"

'Make more butter'

While netizens said they will try to help out by buying more milk, chatter on online platforms suggested that the Kishida administration may have backed the dairy farmers as many members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party represent rural constituencies.

Some said consumers supporting the drive will buy less juice, tea or other drinks, which could cause an outcry from companies that feel they are losing out due to the government's intervention.

Ayako Ueda, a married office worker from Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, said she cannot understand why the milk cannot be turned into other products with a longer shelf life.

"In recent years, we have heard often that there is not enough butter available, so why can't this milk be used to make more butter, or yogurt or even turned into milk powder to send overseas?" she said.

"The milk industry should think about ways it can use the milk without wasting any."

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Despite public scepticism, companies responded positively to the government's call for the nation to come to the assistance of the dairy industry, with the owner of the Omiya Western Sweets Shop revealing the previously secret recipe for its hugely popular vanilla-milk puddings.

"My shop is a business with dairy farmers so I thought I would have to help them as much as possible," Yoshiaki Yoshida, who runs the west Tokyo outlet, told TV Asahi.

North Pacific Bank, which is based in the cattle farming prefecture of Hokkaido, gave free milk carton vouchers to customers and donated an additional 2 million yen (S$23,000) worth of the dairy product to 23 orphanages.

The Family Mart chain of convenience stores chipped in with discount coupons for cartons of milk for anyone who buys a cup of coffee, saying it hopes to get an extra 120 tonnes off its shelves.

Cookpad Inc., which provides recipes and cooking tips through an online service, announced that it will be focusing on serving up recipes that use a lot of milk over the coming weeks in an effort to encourage its 57 million registered users to procure more milk.

The company said it has more than 400,000 milk-based recipes in its repertoire and will be promoting those that require at least 1 litre of milk.

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