Belgian fries makers feel the heat as Ukrainian sunflower oil stops flowing – POLITICO
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Ukraine’s exit from the global food market spells trouble for Belgium’s famed fries industry.
Sunflower oil was one of Ukraine’s biggest food exports and is a key ingredient found in everything from baked cakes and savory snacks to sauces, spreads and even baby foods. babies.
Russia’s invasion is a blow to Ukraine’s oil shipments to the EU, forcing food manufacturers in the bloc to scramble to find alternatives to keep their businesses going.
One of Belgium’s signature dishes – potato fries or fries — is one of the sectors affected by the burn. Makers of fried potato products are warning that the impact of war is imminent as stocks of their favorite cooking oil begin to dry up.
Christophe Vermeulen, chief executive of Belgapom, a trade group for potato companies across Belgium, said the outlook was particularly dire for mass-produced frozen potato fries, which depended on oil from sunflower to precook their popular packs of fries.
“As things stand, I think we have a few weeks left with our sunflower oil available, but no more,” he said, adding that his members were dependent on Ukraine for up to 45% of their supply. Some companies are even more exposed.
Chips — and potatoes in general — are big business in Belgium, the world’s leading exporter of frozen french fries. According to a Belgapom report, in 2020 some 5.08 million tonnes of potatoes were processed into fries, mashed potatoes, crisps and flakes. This includes 2.08 million tonnes of potatoes that ended up as frozen french fries. According to some survey-based estimates, 95% of Belgians visit a fries kiosk at least once a year, and more than 60% eat fries every week.
But as industry giants scramble global supply chains for a solution and even ask the government to keep their factories running, the famous country fritkots — those stalls where tourists and Belgians line up for a cone of fries — may be safe from the global sunflower oil crisis, at least for now.
For the well-known Maison Antoine chip shop in the european district, the shortage of sunflower oil is not so serious since, in keeping with Belgian tradition, their popular cone of fries is prepared with beef fat, which gives them a strong taste.
“The problem with sunflower oil concerns pre-fried or frozen potatoes, but we use fresh potatoes, which we cook here and always with beef fat,” said a fryer from the House. Anthony. As for their sauces, they are mostly made with canola oil, they added.
Bernard Lefevre, former fritkot owner who now heads the independent trade association Unafri, said most of the country’s myriad independent chip stalls had their own unique oil recipes and sunflower oil was usually only a minor ingredient in the cooking fats used.
“There are more than 4,500 chip stalls in Belgium, and they all had to be different from each other, which means that we are globally less dependent on a single source of supply,” he said. .
While for “Big Fries”, the short-term replacement of sunflower oil requires a major reversal of largely standardized manufacturing, logistics and even labeling operations, for those fritkot owners who use sunflower oil, either in frying or in sauce, the recipe exchange will not be too difficult, said Lefevre.
For the independents chip shops like Maison Antoine, the main concern is that as supplies of sunflower oil run out, industry bigwigs will start picking up other types of vegetable oils, potentially limiting their availability to small businesses. .
Belgapom’s Vermeulen said the pressure on sunflowers, coupled with soaring energy prices strangling everyone in the food chain, had created the “perfect storm” for the sector.
As the rush for vegetable oils continues to rock food supply chains, Philippe Burny, an agricultural economist at the Walloon Center for Agricultural Research, said prices were likely to surge. “If the industry has to make adjustments, there will be costs,” he said.
For Lefèvre, the risk is that the big players in the frozen fry industry will drive up the prices of alternatives to sunflower oil, affecting small chip shops too.
“Manufacturers are going to have to find something else and they are going to turn to the frying oils that we use frequently,” he said. “If demand increases, prices will likely follow too.”
Fritkot the owners, like other small businesses such as hairdressers and bakers, are already struggling with high energy bills, among other pressures. “We are, in a way, the thermometer of Belgian society”, declared Lefevre. “It’s true that the atmosphere at the moment is not the most cheerful. That said, a good cone of fries is always good.”
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