Ukraine War Sparks Global Scramble For Cooking Oils

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Ukraine is a major producer of sunflower oil, making up over 47% of the world’s exports, according to research firm Mintec. But shipments of sunflower oil—and seeds used by crushers elsewhere—have ground to a halt amid the war, disrupting supplies of a commodity widely used for cooking and as an ingredient in everyday products like margarine, mayonnaise and bread.

The shortage of Ukrainian sunflower oil has triggered a domino effect that underscores how interconnected global commodity markets are pushing up the price of other oils produced elsewhere, including those not ordinarily considered substitutes for sunflower oil.

The disruption comes on top of already high prices for edible oils after crop failures in Canada and South America.

“We were already in the middle of an inflection point,” said Luciano Chiumiento, commercial director of Italian pesto maker CLAS SpA., ordinarily a major user of sunflower oil. “Then there was the war and it made everything more crazy.”

Global sunflower oil prices were up 44% at the end of March compared with a year earlier, while rapeseed oil had risen 72%, according to market data firm Mintec Ltd. The price of soybean oil is up 41%, palm oil has gained 61% and olive oil is 15% higher. Other than olive oil, all the rest hit record high prices in March, says Mintec.

At first, many food manufacturers switched to rapeseed oil, the easiest substitute for sunflower oil, said Gary Lewis, head of KTC Edibles Ltd., a U.K.-based seller of cooking and ingredient oils.

Rapeseed oil prices quoted by crushers quickly jumped between 40% to 50%, Mr. Lewis said. Rapeseed supplies then soon began to run low, too. Now, KTC isn’t selling either sunflower oil or rapeseed oil, he said, because they can’t get hold of them.

“The world is realizing it’s not easy to take a major commodity like sunflower oil and switch to an alternative,” Mr. Lewis added.

Sunflower oil is a popular cooking oil but also an attractive ingredient for products like mayonnaise and margarine, particularly in Europe, because of its relatively mild flavor and wide availability. Substituting in palm oil can be tough because it is more dense, while soy oil raises allergy risks and concerns over genetically modified organisms, said Albert McQuaid, chief science and technology officer for Irish ingredients maker Kerry Group PLC. The company is in the process of swapping sunflower for rapeseed oil in the emulsifiers it makes for mayonnaise and margarine makers.

Olive oil, a relatively niche and expensive product, has emerged as a more unlikely substitute, executives say.

Prices of refined olive oil generally trend about four times higher than those of sunflower oil, while global production of sunflower oil is more than seven times as large as olive oil, according to Walter Zanre, U.K. head of Italian olive oil brand Filippo Berio. The recent price jump shows how far the search for substitutes has spread, he added.

Filippo Berio is planning on raising the prices of its olive oils globally by about 20%, with rises in some places starting in May once existing supplies run out. “Because of the scale of the increases, olive crushers are not delivering at prices contracted at in February,” said Mr. Zanre. “They are demanding the new market price in order to deliver.”

For its line of pestos, of which sunflower oil is ordinarily a key ingredient, Filippo Berio is now running taste tests and shelf-life assessments to see if it can swap in rapeseed oil. Here, too, the company plans to raise prices, said Mr. Zanre.

CLAS is also exploring rapeseed oil, and soybean oil, as potential alternatives to sunflower oil, which makes up about 40% of an average pesto. Mr. Chiumiento said higher prices for all these oils mean higher prices on shelves are unavoidable.

The company is already grappling with higher energy and transport expenses, while the price of glass jars—another product usually produced in Ukraine—has jumped as much as 45%, Mr. Chiumiento said.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, CLAS has increased prices on its pestos by between 30% and 50% and would need to raise prices as much as 60%-70% if it keeps product formulations the same, Mr. Chiumiento added.

As more producers substitute sunflower oil with rapeseed, the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency conducted risk assessments to test for allergies. The agency said it doesn’t expect label changes to move as quickly as formulation changes, raising the risk that some consumers could unknowingly consume rapeseed. The FSA concluded the risk of allergies to rapeseed is very low.

Grocery stores in some European countries, including Belgium and Spain, have rationed sunflower oil, while British supermarket chain Iceland recently said it would include more palm oil in its products because of the sunflower oil shortage.

Iceland said it made its decision with “huge regret” after having pledged in 2018 to remove palm oil from its own-label products because of concerns about deforestation.

“The only alternative to using palm oil under the current circumstances would simply be to clear our freezers and shelves of a range of staples including frozen chips and other potato products,” Iceland’s Managing Director Richard Walker wrote in a blog post.

Ukraine, whose national flower is the sunflower, has been a major exporter of the oil pressed from the plant’s seeds for decades. Global agricultural trading houses including Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. invested in ports, grain facilities and processing plants in the Black Sea area since at least the early 2000s.

Since the war, Bunge, ADM and Cargill have all suspended their Ukrainian sunflower refining operations.

Much of Ukraine’s sunflower oil exports—like its sizable grain shipments—are sent to developing countries, where higher food prices will have an outsize impact on poorer consumers.

India, for instance, is the world’s largest importer of edible oils, sourcing most of its sunflower oil from Ukraine. India also gets its sunflower oil from Russia, the world’s second-largest exporter, which has said it would introduce export quotas starting later this month. Russia has also said it would ban the export of sunflower and rape seeds from April until the end of August to protect domestic supply as prices surge.

India also imports palm oil from Indonesia, which has said its palm oil producers must sell 30% of what was earmarked for exports domestically in an attempt to contain cooking oil prices.

As planting season approaches, U.S. growers spying an opportunity amid soaring prices could increase sunflower seed output by 30%-40%, according to John Sandbakken, head of the National Sunflower Association. Growers should be motivated to shift to sunflowers from other crops that command a less attractive price, he added.

Still, analysts don’t expect any U.S. increase to significantly ease price pressure given the country accounts for a tiny slice of exports and typically sends its sunflower oil to countries like Mexico and Canada that don’t rely on Ukrainian imports. The European Union, Argentina and Turkey are the world’s third, fourth and fifth largest producers of sunflower oil respectively.

Some other sunflower oil-producing countries are refusing to sell or even quote prices in the hope that prices could rise further still, according to Mr. Zanre and other buyers. Even when they do, there will still be gaps in the market.

“There simply isn’t sufficient sunflower oil in the rest of the world to cover the Ukrainian shortfall,” Mr. Zanre said.

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