The most powerful earthquake in Japan's history has made an impact in Hong Kong, choking off supplies of Japanese food and sparking fears of possible contamination.
A supply crunch and knee-jerk price inflation for Japanese imports such as fruit, rice, dairy products, beef, pork and snacks are looming as key production bases in northeastern and coastal regions such as Miyagi, Iwata and Ibaraki were hard hit by a deadly quake and tsunami on Friday.
Fears of shortages prompted about 300 shoppers to queue up at a pharmacist at Prince Edward in Kowloon yesterday to stock up on Japan-imported baby formula.
Customers were admitted only in groups and were limited to one carton per person.
The General Chamber of Pharmacy chairman, Lau Oi-kwok, said inquiries about Japanese milk formula soared over the weekend, with many parents worried about a cut in supply because of the natural disasters. He said some parents were also worried that the next batch of milk formula would be contaminated by radiation.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok urged prudence, saying the Centre for Food Safety had stepped up monitoring Japanese fresh produce, and preliminary radioactive tests of 10 samples had showed no abnormalities.
Hong Kong was the largest importer of Japanese agricultural, forestry and fisheries products from 2007 to 2009, sourcing US$1.05 billion of these products in 2009, the latest figures available from the Japan External Trade Organisation showed.
The catastrophe is forcing Japanese supermarkets in Hong Kong including Yata, Apita, Sogo and Jusco to change their sourcing strategies.
Yata, whose 25,000-square-foot Tai Po store opened in December, had sufficient stocks to keep shelves filled for three months, after which supplies would be uncertain, managing director Daniel Chong Wai-chung said.
The supermarket, which boasts specialised counters for eggs, milk, fruits, groceries and baby food imported directly from Hokkaido in the north, Kyushu in the south, and from the main island, Honshu, planned to source more fresh produce such as apples, strawberries, sweet potatoes and vegetables from South Korea.
'It is uncertain how much farmland has been flooded,' Chong said. 'The teething problem now is the transport network.'
He added that radiation pollution was a concern, although Japanese imports tested by the Hong Kong government had proven safe. Yata had not raised the selling prices of existing Japanese products despite the possible fall in supplies, he said.
A regular Yata shopper who was babysitting her 15-month-old granddaughter stocked up on Japanese bean curd, sweet potatoes and a dozen cans of baby formula.
'The biggest fear is radiation and water pollution. Japanese food is probably the safest in the world, but I have doubts after the quake.' She had stopped eating sashimi and sushi for fear of radiation pollution and had cancelled a trip to Japan.
Lifestyle International Holdings, the operator of Sogo department stores in Hong Kong, found people buying up Japanese steaks and vegetables at the weekend, chief financial officer Terry Poon Fuk-chuen said.
'We are in talks with about 100 suppliers about sourcing arrangements,' he said of Sogo's Freshmart supermarkets. 'If sourcing is no longer available, we will have to shift to other destinations.'
Additional reporting by Ng Yuk-hang