Belgium’s fries makers feel the heat as Ukraine’s 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 has been one of Ukraine’s top food exports and is a key ingredient in everything from baked sweets and savory snacks to sauces, spreads and even baby food.

Russia’s invasion is dealing a blow to EU shipments of the oil to Ukraine, leaving food makers on the bloc looking for alternatives to keep the business afloat.

One of the characteristic foods of Belgium – potato fries or fries – is one of the sectors feeling the fire. Manufacturers of fried potato products are warning of the effects of war as supplies of their favorite cooking oil begin to run out.

Christophe Vermeulen, managing director of Belgapom, a trading group for potato companies across Belgium, said the prospects were particularly poor for mass-produced frozen potato fries, which rely on sunflower oil to pre-cook their popular packs fries.

“As things stand, I think we have a few more weeks with our available sunflower oil, but no more,” he said, adding that its members would rely on Ukraine for up to 45 percent of their supply. Some companies are even more exposed.

Fries – and potatoes in general – are big business in Belgium world’s largest exporter of frozen fries. Around 5.08 million tons of potatoes were processed into fries, mashed potatoes, chips and flakes in 2020, according to a Belgapom report. That includes 2.08 million tons of potatoes that end up as frozen fries. According to some survey-based estimates, 95 percent of Belgians visit a fries a kiosk at least once a year and more than 60 percent eat fries every week.

But while the industry giants are scouring global supply chains for a solution and even appealing to the government to keep their factories running, the country is famous Frittkots — those stalls where tourists and Belgians line up to eat a bag of fresh food fries — be protected from the global sunflower oil meltdown, at least for now.

For Maison Antoine, a well-known fryer in the European quarter, the sunflower oil shortage is less of a blow, as their popular fries are made with beef fat, according to Belgian tradition, which gives them a special flavor.

“The problem with sunflower oil is for pre-fried or frozen potatoes, but we use fresh potatoes that we cook here and always use beef fat,” said a fry maker at Maison Antoine. As for their sauces, they’re made primarily with canola oil, they added.

Bernard Lefevre, a former Fritkot The owner, who is now head of the independent trade association Unafri, said most of the country’s myriad independently run chip shops have their own unique oil recipes and that sunflower oil is generally only a small component of the cooking fats used.

“There are over 4,500 fry stands in Belgium and they all had to be different from each other – that means we’re less dependent on a single source globally,” he said.

While for “big fries” the short-term replacement of sunflower oil requires a major change in the largely standardized production, logistics and even labelling Fritkot For owners who use sunflower oil, either in frying or in sauces, the recipe change won’t be too difficult, said Lefevre.

For independent fries As with Maison Antoine, the main concern is that when supplies of sunflower oil run low, the big beasts of the industry will start scooping other types of vegetable oils, potentially limiting their availability to smaller companies.

Vermeulen von Belgapom said the sunflower shortages, combined with soaring energy prices that are choking everyone along the food chain, have created the “perfect storm” for the sector.

As the fight over vegetable oils continues to shake food supply chains, Philippe Burny, agricultural economist at the Walloon Agricultural Research Center, said prices were likely to rise. “If the industry has to make some adjustments, there will be costs,” he said.

For Lefèvre, the risk is that the big players in the frozen fries industry will inflate and squash the prices of alternatives to sunflower oil fries to.

“Industrial companies will have to look elsewhere, and they will look to the frying oils that we use a lot,” he said. “As demand increases, prices will likely follow.”

Fritkot Owners, like other small businesses such as hairdressers and bakers, are already struggling with high energy bills, among other things. “In a way, we are the thermometer of Belgian society,” he said Lefevre. “It’s true that the mood isn’t the best right now. That being said, a nice bag of fries is always good.”

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