Issei Kato / Reuters

Japan McDonald’s to ration fries amid US port backups

Spuds caught in West Coast container port delays partly due to labor contract negotiations

McDonald’s french fries en route to Japan are reportedly the latest cargo shipment casualty of a contract dispute between thousands of dockworkers and terminal operators and shipping lines at West Coast ports that has delayed shipments of  some goods by up to two weeks.

The fast food chain said outlets in Japan began rationing its fries Wednesday morning by offering only small-size servings of french fries to customers. Demand has been difficult to meet despite an emergency airlift of 1,000 tons of processed spuds and an extra shipment by sea from East Coast ports, the company said.

"Unfortunately without this sales restriction step, we would run the danger of running out of fries at some of our stores around the end of the year or beginning of the new year," McDonald's Japan spokeswoman Kokoro Toyama told Reuters.

Container ports along the West Coast have experienced severe delays since October, due in part to lengthy labor talks between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing terminal operators and shipping lines at 29 West Coast ports, and 20,000 dockworkers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who have been accused by the terminal owners and shipping lines of orchestrating some slowdowns on the docks to bolster leverage in an effort to negotiate a new contract.

Union officials deny organizing any slowdowns. They say delays were due to other factors, such as a shortage of tractor-trailer chassis used for hauling cargo containers from the ports, a situation created when shippers decided to sell their chassis to equipment-leasing companies, Reuters reported.

ILWU Communications Director Craig Merrilees said news of a french fry shortage in Japan as the work of "public relations scammers" trying to spin the media and the public "to complete their narrative that an alleged worker slowdown is causing a french fry crisis." 

"That’s an orchestrated campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation," he told Al Jazeera. 

National Retail Federation spokesman Stephen Schatz declined to respond to Merrilees' comments but said the federation had reached out to the PMA and ILWU, "urging them to reach a contract deal."

"Our main message is that we want the ports open, operational and functioning," Schatz said. "We're not taking sides. We're not being partial. We just want the two sides to come to a deal and come to a deal soon."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce declined to comment. 

Both parties opened their talks in May and agreed to keep negotiating after their  contract expired on July 1. The specifics of the contract dispute are not entirely clear because both sides agreed not to publicly disclose details.  

The parties said in August they had reached a tentative deal on health care benefits but have been unable to fully resolve the contract situation. Since resuming talks after a hiatus in November, negotiators said they have met on a fairly regular basis. 

Merrilees, of the ILWU, said that negotiations were ongoing and that the sides have been "making progress." "The ball is in the PMA’s court. We hope and expect it will be soon," said Merrilees. 

However, PMA spokesman Steve Getzug told Al Jazeera in an email Wednesday that both sides remained "far apart on several issues," adding that "union slowdowns continue to disrupt the movement of cargo through the ports."

As for the reported french fry shortage, Toyama said that McDonald's, which has 3,100 outlets in Japan, was not limiting the number of small-size servings of fries each customer may buy. But it isn't clear when McDonald's customers will be able to resume ordering medium and large servings. Toyama declined to comment on the impact on earnings.

Frozen french fries — ready for the deep-fryer — are a leading U.S. export. They are cut and partly cooked before shipping.

Japan is the biggest Asian market for U.S.-made frozen potato products, importing $336 million worth last year. Japanese consume more than 300,000 tons of french fries a year, mostly at fast food restaurants and largely sourced from imports of frozen processed potatoes from the U.S.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. 

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