UK rationing cooking oil amid supply crisis

April 25, 2022 - 11:49

Supermarkets in the United Kingdom have started rationing how much cooking oil each customer is allowed to purchase amid shortages that have been made worse by the conflict in Ukraine.

On some supermarket shelves, signs have appeared informing shoppers they are limited to one or two bottles of cooking oil that they could purchase at one time.

The UK relies heavily on Ukraine for its supplies of sunflower and olive oil, but stocks are running low as the war continues to drag on and prices are said to have spiked dramatically.

The conflict has already severely impacted fuel supplies that have resulted in skyrocketing prices.

With sunflower oil running out, shoppers have turned to buy other more expensive alternatives as replacements.

That in turn has led to unprecedented demand, forcing a number of Britain's major food retailers to impose limits on purchases both online and in-store.

Now the UK faces heavy disruption to food deliveries and more misery to shoppers.

Supermarket giant Tesco says it is allowing three cooking oil items per customer, while other chains have placed limits of just two or one bottle for each customer.

In a statement, Tesco said: "To make sure all of our customers can continue to get what they need, we've introduced a temporary buying limit of three items per customer on products from our cooking oil range."

Another supermarket chain Waitrose said it was "closely monitoring the situation and working with our suppliers to ensure customers continue to have a choice of cooking oils.”

Social media footage shows another supermarket chain Iceland limiting sales of two-liter and five-liter bottles of sunflower oil at its stores to just one per customer.

Richard Walker, The managing director of Iceland supermarkets confirmed the company was rationing sunflower oil sales to one bottle per customer.

“It is not as frenzied as the toilet roll panic buying from a couple of years ago, and we are managing to maintain an offer,” he told British media.

“But yes, we are limiting purchases and we’ve moved into smaller packs to allow existing stocks in the market to service more customers.”

Walker says “If you look at commodity prices, sunflower oil has gone up 1,000 percent in terms of the commodity cost in the market, palm oil (up) 400 percent, and then there is things like wheat, 50 percent, fertilizer 350 percent,”

“These are all unintended consequences of the war in Ukraine that is affecting supermarkets,” he added.

A spokesman for the supermarket brand  Sainsbury's says: "We are working closely with our suppliers to make sure customers continue to have cooking oils to choose from, including olive oil, vegetable oil, and rapeseed oil."

Another British brand Waitrose has said it was "closely monitoring the situation and working with our suppliers to ensure customers continue to have a choice of cooking oils.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) claims the measure is a temporary move "to ensure availability for everyone.”

Speaking to British media, a spokesperson for the trade association for all retaliators says "the war in Ukraine has disrupted supplies of sunflower oil to the UK. Some retailers have introduced limits on the number of bottles customers can buy as a temporary measure to ensure availability for everyone.”

The spokesperson added, "retailers are working with suppliers to ramp up production of alternative cooking oils, to minimize the impact on consumers."

For the richer class of British society, food is a relatively small part of household spending but for the growing poorer class in the UK, it’s a massive portion of their household expenditure.

Experts say the worse is still to come in terms of food inflation with Tesco chairman John Allan warning that his stores are being impacted by rising energy prices as well as the supermarket’s suppliers being impacted by the same problem.

Analysts have painted a bleak future picture of poorer households having to choose between buying food or heating their houses.

The prices for cooking have risen sharply over the last month, burning more holes in British shoppers' pockets.

Just two weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics said that the price of cooking oils and fats went up seven percent and is nearly a quarter more expensive than a year ago.

Further analysis by research firm Assosia suggests a higher rate of inflation for the most sought-after products.

According to their data, a one-liter bottle of own-brand sunflower oil has gone up by an average of 12 pence to £1.26 since January 2022, an increase of more than 10 percent.

The British consumer price index (CPI), which is the official mechanism used to measure the rise of inflation in the UK, shows the cost of food and drink has gone up 5.9 percent year on year as of March 2022.

However, economists and research show increases across many key categories have exceeded this hike.

Pasta products for example, a key base for UK meals, saw their prices go up 10.1 percent year-on-year having already jumped 14.9 percent in January 2022 as a result of poor wheat harvests in 2021.

Meat has gone up in price across the board, with lamb (16.9 percent up), beef (8.6 percent), and poultry (7.3 percent) all-seeing large increases.

Milk, cheese, and eggs (8.6 percent) and butter (9.6 percent) have also seen hikes.

Analysts say these rises are a result of farmers facing increases in their production costs, with fertilizer prices increasing since last summer and more recently fuel prices rising very sharply as a result of the crisis inً Ukraine.

BRC CEO Helen Dickinson has warned that “consumer confidence has fallen significantly in recent months, as worries around personal finances rise. Households face a plethora of rising costs, with higher inflation to come as the increase in the energy price cap pushes up April’s figures.”

She noted that “retailers are not exempt from these pressures, as the costs of transport, energy, raw materials, and staff wages all continue to rise.”

Major questions are being raised as to how secure the UK's food system is? while there is concern among British consumers over the possible wider use of food rationing in the future.

The war in Ukraine is threatening the food supply and livelihoods of people in Europe as well as Africa and Asia who depend on the fertile farmlands of the Black Sea region.

Russia and Ukraine grow around 14 percent of the world's wheat and account for almost one-third of global wheat exports. The global price shocks as a result of the war in Ukraine are likely to continue pushing bills higher.

Critics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson argue he is prolonging the war by sending enough weaponry to ensure an impasse on the ground (instead of backing the peace process) to deflect pressure over his low popularity ratings in the polls and among colleagues from his own ruling party ahead of next month’s local elections.

Reports suggest Johnson has been informed that public anger over his lockdown-breaking Downing Street party scandals will result in the ruling Conservative party suffering substantial losses at local elections, with the possibility that the Prime Minister may receive further police fines ahead of polling day.

Voters in Scotland, Wales, and parts of England will vote in local elections early next month.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the crisis concerning the cost of living are all expected to play a major role over which party voters choose to elect.

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