From pasta shortage to run on iodine pills, panic buying hits Europe again

Economy News


In northern Italy, the supermarkets have been cleared of pasta. Pharmacies in Norway are sold out of iodine tablets. And in Germany, trade groups are warning against Hamster purchase – “hamster shopping”, or panic buying.

Two years on from the early pandemic shortages that sent consumers rushing to stock up on toilet paper, Russia’s war in Ukraine has sparked a fresh wave of hoarding in parts of Europe.

“I bought 20 packs of pasta and several kilos of flour last week in preparation for shortages,” said Sabrina Di Leto, 50, from Lecco, north of Milan.

“We’re also looking at converting our backyard into a vegetable garden and a henhouse in order to be self-sufficient in case we go to war and food supplies become scarce,” she added.

Shoppers schooled in supply chain economics after witnessing the effects of coronavirus on global trade are now stocking up based on cold war anxieties or anticipated shortages from the now embattled bread basket of Europe.

Ukraine and Russia are critical global suppliers of wheat, as well as sunflower, rapeseed, flaxseed and soy used for cooking oils and in animal feed. Half of global sunflower oil exports come from Ukraine and a further 21 per cent from Russia.

Nearly 90 per cent of flaxseed processed in the EU is imported, according to the Association of the Oilseed Processing Industry in Germany. It said that the war in Ukraine was likely to cause shortages in cooking oils and animal feed that would be “very difficult to substitute” in the short term.

Prices of bread, pasta, and meat are already rising in Italy, which imports much of its wheat from eastern Europe and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil from Ukraine, as well as large amounts of corn used to feed animals.

A loaf currently costs up to € 8 per kilo in Milan. It would have cost an average of € 4.25 in November, according to Coldiretti, the national agriculture trade organization.

A baker kneads dough by hand while making bread at a bakery in Rome, Italy
Prices of bread, pasta and meat are already rising in Italy, which imports much of its wheat from eastern Europe © Alessia Pierdomenico / Bloomberg

“Its ridiculous that bread, which has always been poor people’s food, has become a luxury item,” complained Di Leto, saying that she had stockpiled flour to bake her own and save money.

German grocers have been forced to ration sales of cooking oil in an effort to prevent another round of Hamster purchases. The national slang for hoarding became popular during the pandemic, and comes from the rodent’s habit of stuffing its cheeks with food.

Otherwise well-stocked markets have bare shelves where flour and cooking oils are normally stored. “Please show solidarity and think of your neighbors – refrain from stocking up unnecessarily!” read a sign outside a Penny supermarket in Frankfurt.

Lieselotte, an 85-year-old shopper, said she had been allowed to buy just a single bottle of sunflower oil.

As part of Germany’s dwindling band of second world war Children of War, or “war children”, she believed that she was better prepared to accept shortages than the younger generation. “We know this from our childhood. But today’s youth are used to having everything, ”she said.

Panic buying looks different in the Nordics, where fighting close to Ukraine’s Chernobyl plant and President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear posturing have revived cold war anxieties.

In Norway, there has been a run on iodine pills used to combat the effect of radiation. More than 1.7mn tablets have been sold in recent weeks, according to local media, and pharmacies will have no more available until next month.

Not all of Europe has been gripped by panic buying. Retailer Carrefour, which has a large presence in France, Spain and Italy, said it had not experienced the shortages that accompanied the start of the pandemic.

“There’s been some people stocking up in France, and a bit more in Spain where we’ve sold out of sunflower oil in some places, but overall this behavior remains marginal and the market is functioning pretty much as normal,” it said.

Serious supply shortages will hit poorer countries that are dependent on wheat from Ukraine and Russia harder than Europe. Jan Egeland, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned that Somalia imported 90 per cent of wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

“With wheat prices soaring and drought worsening, the number of people that can not be fed will explode,” he wrote on Twitter.

Middle East grain importers are bracing for havoc on budgets in places such as Egypt, which subsidizes bread for 70mn people. Flour shelves have been emptied in Lebanon and Tunisia, with locals accusing shopkeepers of hoarding basic goods to sell later at high prices.

Supermarkets in Turkey, where households are already struggling with soaring inflation, sold out of sunflower oil after news headlines warned that the country could face shortages.

In Spain, a government minister suggested that, rather than panic buying sunflower oil, the nation should grease its pans with olive oil – a product his country has exported for more than two millennia.

“The sunflower oil issue is not really a problem because we have other vegetable fats and we have olive oil,” said Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister. He noted that shares in some big olive oil producers had shot up more than 20 per cent in recent weeks.

Another winner – which some critics suspect is benefiting unfairly – may be petrol providers. Germany this week warned that it would watch suppliers for price gouging after crude prices dropped but petrol costs stayed high, at € 2.26 per liter, compared to € 1.81 before the invasion.

For German shoppers such as Monika, 75, perusing the aisles of the Penny supermarket, the costs are an important reminder that in a global economy, no one can escape the cost of war.

“We all have to pay the price for what is happening in Ukraine,” she said.

Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud in Paris and Heba Saleh in Cairo



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