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1 Apr 2022

Should we be worried about food shortages?

We investigate the causes behind the current food shortages and what these really mean for UK consumers
Empty supermarket shelves

During the pandemic we became accustomed to gaps on supermarket shelves. A lack of seasonal workers and HGV drivers meant crops couldn't be harvested, animals couldn't be slaughtered and food couldn't be transported to where it needed to be.

While these causes are still a factor, the war in Ukraine, and other related and unrelated factors are now causing additional issues and concerns for the food chain, and on a far larger scale.

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Shortages of sunflower oil

Most of the sunflower oil we use in the UK is imported from Ukraine and the food businesses have been severely impacted with many unable to source any. 

Sunflower oil has a subtle taste that doesn't overpower food, is stable at high temperatures and is high in unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E.

That's why it's used extensively in cooking and as an ingredient in many food products, including crisps, granola and other cereals, oven chips, breaded fish, pesto and vegetable oil spreads.

Shortages and subsequent price hikes have left food manufacturers looking for alternatives to minimise disruption to the availability of certain foods.

Several switched to refined rapeseed oils in March 2022 but fully refined palm oil, fully refined coconut oil and fully refined soybean oil are now being used in some products in place of sunflower oil.

The FSA wants to reassure consumers that it has looked into any safety risks associated with substituting sunflower oil with these fully refined oils in the case of food allergies, and the risks are low.

Emily Miles, FSA chief executive says: 'If industry decisions are made around the substitution of these oils, we expect accurate labels to be prepared and printed as soon as possible. Any inaccuracies in labelling must only be temporary. We are working closely with industry to raise awareness among consumers of any potential changes to ingredients'.

The lack of sunflower oil has meant supermarket Iceland has U-turned on its commitment to remove palm oil from its own-label products.

On its company website, Richard Walker, Iceland managing director said that the move away from palm oil had increased the company's reliance on sunflower oil. But that the soaring price and scarcity of sunflower oil has meant in some cases Iceland has had to go back to using palm oil in certain products where rapeseed oil wasn't a viable alternative.

Alternatives to sunflower oil for home cooking

Sunflower oil is used widely in home cooking too - for frying, stir fries, roasting potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and as an alternative to butter in cake recipes.

If you're struggling to find sunflower oil on supermarket shelves you can swap it for rapeseed oil (sometimes known as canola oil) which is also low in saturated fat, is relatively flavourless, and has a high 'smoke' point so is stable at high temperatures for cooking.

Olive oil, although more expensive, can be used in place of sunflower oil in some instances, however if cooking at high temperatures (frying and roasting) use a refined olive oil. Olive oil won't work as well in cakes as it has a more distinct flavour than sunflower oil.

How to make Yorkshire puddings

What other foods might be affected?

While there are some residual issues in the food chain relating to Covid and Brexit, such as availability of HGV drivers, what's happening in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia will have an increasing effect on availability of some foods.

For example, around 30% of the world's wheat comes from Ukraine and Russia. While the UK grows most of its wheat and our imports come mainly from France, Germany and Canada, the scarcity of global wheat will lead to prices increasing.

This will affect the cost of bread, pasta and many breakfast cereals.

Corn (maize) is another staple widely grown in Ukraine and Russia.

Both wheat and corn are used in animal feed in the UK so shortages and price rises of these are likely to have a knock-on effect on the cost of meat, dairy and eggs.

Ukraine and Russia are major producers of fertiliser. But the war, sanctions and the rising cost of gas are making it harder for farmers to source fertiliser and pushing the price of it up.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has said the cost of nitrogen fertiliser was up 200% year on year.

Farmers are having to adapt by using less fertiliser than usual, however the consequence of this could be lower yields.

Higher gas prices could affect producers of fertiliser in the UK. During the pandemic some plants closed temporarily, affecting the production of carbon dioxide (CO2), a by-product of the process and causing shortages of carbonated drinks and beer.

It's possible that this could happen again.

Additionally many seasonal workers in the UK come from Ukraine and are vital in planting, picking and packing fresh produce. If we don't have enough seasonal workers this will affect how much food is produced.

The scarcity of foods and fertiliser, combined with increasing gas costs and the potential shortage of seasonal workers will inevitably have an effect on food prices, sending them soaring at a time when people are already struggling with the cost of living.

What you can do

There's not much consumers can directly do to mitigate against these shortages, apart from being flexible when supermarkets don't have what you want.

You can use the internet to find inspiration and recipes for foods you're not used to cooking with or for ideas for substitutions if you can't find what you want.

Supermarkets will do as much as they can to ensure that there's enough choice on shelves and over the past couple of years have got used to adapting and prioritising their product lines.

Which is the cheapest supermarket?