Natural disasters disrupt flour, feed and oilseed operations in Japan, parts of northwest Europe

by Teresa Acklin
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   A powerful earthquake in western Japan and severe flooding in northwestern Europe in January wreaked havoc with flour, feed and oilseed operations in those areas.

   The most devastating disruptions occurred in Japan, where a Jan. 17 earthquake struck the Kobe area in western Japan, killing more than 5,000 people.

   Property damage was extensive, and grain and oilseed facilities were not spared. Nearly three weeks after the disaster, damage assessment was continuing, with few processing companies willing to predict when their affected facilities might resume operations.

   The earthquake forced the closing of all flour mills in the Kobe area, including six major mills with a total daily milling capacity of 3,800 tonnes, or some 10% to 12% of Japan's total capacity. Flour milling equipment as well as handling systems and storage facilities sustained varying levels of damage.

   To offset these production losses, Japan's major flour milling companies were expanding production at other locations. As of early February, most still had not indicated when normal operations at Kobe plants would resume, although Showa Sangyo Co. Ltd., announced it would reopen its flour and feed plant in mid-February.

   Six feed plants with annual production capacity of 900,000 tonnes and seven oilseed crushing plants representing 20% to 25% of Japan's total crush capacity also were damaged. Processors of feed, meal and oil were increasing production at other facilities to compensate.

   Shipping products into the Kobe area also posed challenges, as the region's transportation infrastructure, including the Port of Kobe, was devastated. Kobe is Japan's third largest grain handling port, taking in about 1.8 million tonnes in 1993, or 13.5% of Japan's total grain handlings. Wheat unloadings at Kobe represented 20.5% of Japan's total wheat unloadings, while maize unloadings accounted for 10.8% of the total.

   Port facilities wrecked by the earthquake included grain silos, stationary unloaders and transport conveyor belts connecting silos and neighboring flour mills. In early February, port officials indicated it should take less than a year to bring the port back into full operation. Meanwhile, arriving grain shipments were being diverted to other ports.

   In Europe, heavy rains in late January caused severe flooding in the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of France and Germany. Barge traffic along major waterways, including the Rhine, was completely halted for a time.

   Because part of the Netherlands is below sea level, that country was hard hit. One flour mill was in the affected area; it reportedly was out of commission because of the flood, but further details were unavailable at presstime. Logistical problems from the high water also disrupted feed deliveries in the Netherlands and barge grain deliveries elsewhere.