Japanese Beverage Makers Struggle to Meet Tokyo Water Demand

Japan’s biggest beverage makers, whose plants are already operating at full capacity, face renewed pressure to raise bottled-water production after radiation contaminated Tokyo’s water supply.

Rakuten Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., the country’s biggest online retailers, face shortages, their websites show, after Tokyo’s government warned against giving tap water to infants. Authorities in the city, home to a 10th of Japan’s population, plan to hand out 240,000 bottles of water to 80,000 families with infants.

“We’re considering various possibilities” to ensure water supply, including boosting imports, Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary, said at a press conference in the Japanese capital today. “We’d like people to act calmly.”

Supply may remain tight as Kirin Holdings Co., Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Asahi Breweries Ltd. said they are already operating at full capacity. The companies are boosting shipments to the area in northeastern Japan devastated by the tsunami that followed the March 11 earthquake, and where more than 250,000 people are in evacuation centers.

Bulk Buying

Revelations of rising contamination in water and food have triggered bulk buying of bottled water at supermarkets and convenience stores even as the government said the health risks are minimal. Edano also said beverage makers will be asked to boost production.

The health ministry has advised against eating leafy vegetables produced near the disaster site.

Radioactive iodine in tap water measured at the Kanamachi purification plant in Tokyo at 6 a.m. today had a level of 79 Becquerels per kilogram, within the safe limit for infants, a government inspection showed. A sample from the same plant two days ago was found to have levels of 210 Becquerels per kilogram, more than double the recommended limit for infants.

Because of today’s lower readings “there is no need to withhold tap water from infants,” Governor Shintaro Ishihara said at a press conference in Tokyo today.

The city government will distribute 240,000 bottles of water tomorrow to families with infants “just in case,” he said. The same amount of water was set to be distributed today.

Chiba Radioactive Readings

“I’ve asked my friend to send me bottled water from Osaka,” about 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of Tokyo, said Yuki Yauchi, a 36-year-old mother of a 5-month-old boy in Tokyo’s Suginami area. “It may take longer than usual, because many people are doing the same thing, making delivery companies busy.”

The levels of radioactive iodine-131 in tap water samples taken yesterday at two purification plants in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, hit 220 Becquerels per kilogram at one plant and 180 at another, according to a statement on the local government’s website today. The recommended limit for infants is 100 Becquerels per kilogram.

Kirin, Japan’s biggest beverage maker, fell 2.7 percent to 1,073 yen in Tokyo trading today. Asahi dropped 3.5 percent to 1,425 yen. Kirin had gained 9.5 percent in the three trading days through yesterday while Asahi advanced 8.4 percent in the same period.

Kirin’s Priority

Seven & I Holdings Co.’s Ito-Yokado stores will give priority to buyers of bottled water who have babies, it said in a statement today. Consumers can buy one 2-liter bottle of water each at 40 stores starting today, and at 117 stores starting tomorrow. Each store will sell the water to as many as 100 customers a day.

“We have been cooperating with authorities as much as we can,” Kan Yamamoto, a spokesman at Tokyo-based Kirin, said by phone today. “Our priority is to supply our products first to the damaged area.”

The company produces Alkali Ion no Mizu bottled water at its distiller in Shizuoka Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

Kirin, Suntory, Asahi and Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. and its 12 bottlers plan to supply more than 8.7 million bottles of water, tea and other beverages to the part of the country worst affected by the earthquake and tsunami, according to statements from the companies.

Engineers at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, located 220 kilometers (135 miles) from Tokyo, resumed work on reconnecting power to help circulate cooling water.

‘Too Many Orders’

The death toll from Japan’s worst postwar disaster climbed to 9,700 as of 12 p.m. local time, with 16,501 people missing, according to the National Police Agency. The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated the country’s northern coastline and forced several hundred thousand people to evacuate.

Closely held Suntory, Japan’s second-largest beverage maker, increased production of bottled water on March 8, before the quake, and its plants are running at full capacity, spokeswoman Midori Takahashi said.

Sapporo Holdings Ltd. increased shipments of bottled mineral water produced in Japan by 80 percent since March 11 from the same period a year earlier, spokesman Katsuhito Ogawa said yesterday.

At Amazon.com’s website in Japan, 24 water products sold by the Seattle-based operator were out of stock. The company didn’t know when it will replenish its supply, it said.

Rakuten’s offerings of water are also limited, as some shops such as the Aizu Discovery in Fukushima shut down due to the quake.

Kyunan Service’s Tamachan Shop, an operator of natural food products in southwestern Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, is “prioritizing sales in the damaged areas.”

“We’re getting too many orders, so please understand it will take a time to confirm them and deliver products,” it said on the website. Orders made now will be delivered in May or June, it said.

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