From pasta shortages to iodine tablets – panic buying is hitting Europe again

In northern Italy, the supermarkets have been cleared of pasta. Pharmacies in Norway are out of stock iodine tablets. And in Germany trade associations warn against it Hamster purchase — Hamster purchases or hamster purchases.

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

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

“We’re also considering converting our backyard into a vegetable garden and chicken coop to be self-sufficient in case we go to war and food supplies run low,” she added.

Shoppers, schooled in supply chain economics after witnessing the impact of the coronavirus on global trade, are now stocking up based on Cold War fears or anticipated shortages from Europe’s now-embattled breadbasket.

Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, as well as sunflower, canola, flaxseed and soy, which are used for cooking oils and animal feed. Half of the world exports of sunflower oil come from Ukraine and another 21 percent from Russia.

Almost 90 percent of the flaxseed processed in the EU is imported, according to the Association of the Oilseed Processing Industry in Germany. The war in Ukraine is expected to lead to shortages of cooking oils and animal feed, which are “very difficult to replace” in the short term.

Bread, pasta and meat prices are already rising in Italy, which imports much of its wheat from Eastern Europe and 80 percent of its sunflower oil from Ukraine, as well as large quantities of corn used for animal feed.

A loaf currently costs up to 8 euros per kilo in Milan. According to Coldiretti, the national agricultural trade organization, it would have cost an average of €4.25 in November.

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

“It’s ridiculous that bread, which has always been poor people’s food, has become a luxury item,” Di Leto lamented, saying that she stockpiled flour to bake it herself to save money.

German grocers were forced to ration sales of cooking oil to prevent another round 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 usually stored. “Please show solidarity and think of the neighbors – do not stock up unnecessarily!” Read a sign in front of a Penny supermarket in Frankfurt.

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

As part of Germany’s dwindling WWII gang war children, or “war children”, she believed to be able to accept bottlenecks better than the younger generation. “We know that from our childhood. But today’s youth are used to having everything,” she said.

Panic buying is looking different in Scandinavia, where fighting near Ukraine’s Chernobyl power plant and President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear posturing have revived Cold War fears.

In Norway there has been a rush for iodine pills to combat the effects of radiation. According to local media, more than 1.7 million tablets have been sold in the last few weeks and pharmacies will not have any more available by next month.

Not all of Europe was caught up in panic buying. Retailer Carrefour, which has a strong presence in France, Spain and Italy, said it did not experience the shortages that came with the onset of the pandemic.

“Some people have stocked up in France and a little more in Spain where we’ve sold out sunflower oil in a few places, but overall this behavior remains marginal and the market is functioning fairly normally,” it said.

Severe supply shortages will hit poorer countries, which depend on wheat from Ukraine and Russia, harder than Europe. Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that Somalia imports 90 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

“As wheat prices rise and drought worsens, the number of people who cannot be fed will explode,” he wrote on Twitter.

Middle East grain importers are bracing for devastating budgets in countries like Egypt, which subsidizes bread for 70 million people. Flour shelves have been emptied in Lebanon and Tunisia, and locals have accused shopkeepers of hoarding staples to later sell at high prices.

Supermarkets in Turkey, where households are already grappling with rising inflation, sold sunflower oil after headlines warned the country could face shortages.

In Spain, a government minister suggested that instead of panicking about buying sunflower oil, the nation should grease its pans with olive oil – a product his country has been exporting for more than two millennia.

“The issue of sunflower oil is not really a problem because we have other vegetable fats and olive oil,” said Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister. He noted that shares in some major olive oil producers were up more than 20 percent in the past few weeks.

Another winner – which some critics suggest is unfairly benefiting – could be gas suppliers. Germany warned this week that it would be watching suppliers for price gouging after crude prices fell, but petrol costs remained high at €2.26 a liter, compared with €1.81 before the invasion.

For German shoppers like Monika, 75, who are browsing the aisles of Penny supermarket, the cost is 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 From pasta shortages to iodine tablets – panic buying is hitting Europe again

Adam Bradshaw

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