Ukraine sunflower oil scarcity in Spain: a headache , an opportunity
Sunflower oil supplies in Spain have been slashed by the invasion of Ukraine leading some supermarkets to limit sales to five litres per person. With limited supply, prices have also surged taking their toll on consumers and businesses.
Javier Alvarez, owner of a small Madrid-based cafeteria specializing in churros, deep-fried dough traditionally consumed in Spain at breakfast, says rising prices mean his business is no longer profitable.
“A year ago we used to buy oil at 0.80 cents (euro) per litre and now it is 2.60 euros per litre, it has increased more than 300 per cent. This (war) was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, adding prices of flour have also risen.
Sunflower oil from Ukraine represents around 40% - or 400,000 tonnes - of the total Spain imports to supplement the 300,000 tonnes it produces in the country.
The crisis, however, also is an opportunity for producers of one of the nation's best-known exports: olive oil.
Primitivo Fernandez, president of the national association of edible oil bottlers, said in Spain bottled oil consumption is guaranteed because the country has enough olive oil.
Spain produces more olive oil than it consumes and exports a third of its production of virgin and refined oils.
The industry estimates it will have 1.5 million tonnes of olive oil and another 250,000 tonnes of olive pomace oil (a more refined by-product) to cover the shortfall of Ukrainian imports, while it looks for other replacement markets.
Spain also hopes to sell more olive oil to its neighbours such as France and Germany. "We are confident that this is an opportunity," Fernandez said. "We will probably be able to reach new consumers in markets where we already are."
The Spanish government has been proactive in talking up olive oil as a solution for shortages, with Agriculture minister Luis Planas telling local television that sunflower oil could be easily exchanged for the locally-produced version.
But, while for consumers willing to accept the higher price of olive oil it means one less headache, some restauranteurs and manufacturers of processed foods, fish canneries and bakeries, don't agree that the two oils are interchangeable.
At the Mallorca patisserie factory in southern Madrid, the teamwork at full pelt frying torrijas, a sweet bread, milk and sugar confection cooked in huge cauldrons of sunflower oil.
Jacobo Moreno, one of the owners of a chain established in Madrid 90 years ago, said that rather than using olive oil, he was swallowing the cost of sunflower oil rising from 1.2 euros to 2.60 euros per litre over four days to ensure the quality of output for the special Easter season.
"It is true that in Spain what we have most and are most famous for is olive oil, but the reality is that it's not suitable for baking because of its aggressive flavour," he said.
Ruben Moreno Pardo, secretary-general of the Spanish Confectionery Association predicted the industry is two weeks, maximum of three weeks away from running out of sunflower oil stock.
Biscuits, chocolate spreads and filling, as well as packaged bread, must also be prepared with sunflower oil, he added.
The sweet industry is looking at using other vegetable oils like corn or coconut, but Spain does not yet have a stable supply.
Meanwhile chef Alejandro Aguilar plans to reluctantly make the switch to olive oil when his stock of sunflower oil runs out to fry fish in his restaurant in the southern city of Ronda.
"The plan is to fry with olive (oil), there's no other option, I don't like any other oils," he said.
(Production: Michael Gore, Guillermo Martinez, Marco Trujillo, Horaci Garcia, Jon Nazca, Juan Antonio Dominguez, Mariano Valladolid, Silvio Castellanos, Miguel Gutierrez)