Embargo leads to higher produce prices in Japan commissaries
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 14, 2012
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Grocery shoppers might experience a bit of sticker shock when they first enter a commissary in Japan, where some fruits and vegetables are sold for prices three or more times higher than other stores across the world.
Quarantine laws mean commissary shoppers spend more on fresh produce in Japan than elsewhere, and many say they eat fewer fruits and vegetables as a result.
At the Yokota commissary, Japanese Fuji apples were selling for $3.82 a pound in August, compared with $1.42 for Brazil Fujis at a commissary in Germany. Japanese potatoes sold for $1.68 a pound, while baking potatoes went for 40 cents a pound in Germany.
Signs at the fresh produce area at Yokota list the types of produce — including apples, potatoes, peaches, plums and cabbage — that can’t be imported into Japan under a government embargo due to quarantine laws.
DeCA spokeswoman Nancy O’Nell said commissaries in Japan can still buy those products from local suppliers, but prices are typically higher than they would be in the U.S., because prices for all goods are generally higher in Japan.
“We offer these items to provide our customers with the widest selection of products,” she said in an email. “Our goal is to offer a stock assortment similar to what a shopper would see at a commissary in the U.S.”
Many of the Yokota shoppers who were interviewed by Stars and Stripes said high prices meant they have cut back on fresh fruit and vegetables since coming to Japan.
Tamisha Shelton said she likes the sweet taste of Japanese apples but doesn’t buy as many as she would in Oklahoma City.
“Back home I’d buy a whole sack of apples,” she said, after placing a few in her cart. “The apples (in Japan) are way overpriced.”
Shelton said she often shopped at farmers markets in the States but doesn’t know her way around well enough in Japan to take advantage of local markets.
Even if she did, the prices there are high, despite the billions of dollars in subsidies that Japan’s government pays to farmers.
Most customers consider price to some extent when making a purchase, O’Nell said, but added: “We notice that our shoppers are aware of nutrition and the role selecting healthful food plays in a healthy life.” She pointed out that commissary prices are a factor when calculating the Overseas Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) that servicemembers receive in Japan.
In contrast to many other Yokota commissary shoppers, Kathy Eagan of Seattle said she hasn’t cut back on fresh produce purchases since coming to Japan.
However, Eagan said some of the fruit and vegetables she’d like to buy aren’t available at the commissary.
“It would be nice to have Idaho potatoes,” she said while browsing the meat cabinets. “The Japanese potatoes are just not the same as an American baked potato.”
And she said high prices could be an issue for younger, lower-paid servicemembers living on a budget.
“I paid $3.50 for a tiny packet of basil the other day,” she said. “I made a mixed salad with … about 10 vegetables and dressing and I think it cost me $35.”
For those who can afford it, the best quality fruits and vegetables are found off-base, she said.
“There is more variety and it is fresher,” she said. “I think they have a higher volume and more turnover. When I buy fruits and vegetables here (at the Yokota commissary) they only last a couple of days in my fridge.”
DeCA nutritionist Karen Hawkins said servicemembers on a budget can opt for canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, which often have better nutritional attributes than fresh foods.
“Fruits and vegetables have a lot of water-soluble vitamins that are lost into the air when they sit around for a while,” she said. “When you freeze fruits and vegetables, it locks in the nutrients. Sometimes the frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are as good, if not better, than the fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Other factors that might influence people’s food choices are healthy lifestyle initiatives and dietary guidelines that DeCA promotes to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables.
“In Japan, military dietitians and nutritionists from the installations set up tables in the commissary one or two times a month to talk about and pass out information on nutrition,” O’Nell said.
Commissaries also host healthy food demonstrations, and military dietitians, nutritionists and other experts provide tours in the commissary to school and community groups, she said.
Commissary produce managers and staff members support installation health programs by going into the community with representatives from Air Force Health and Wellness Centers; Women, Infant and Children Overseas programs; fitness center staff and others to assist in drawing awareness to nutrition and its impact on health, she said.
Stripes reporter Steven Beardsley contributed to this report from Germany.