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Suppliers ration stocks of tinned tomatoes after surge in demand

Tinned tomato suppliers are rationing stocks to supermarkets after demand in the UK surged more than 30% and threatened to use up supplies ahead of this year’s harvest.

Supermarkets and convenience store groups are understood to be jockeying for supplies as families continue to buy more tinned foods than usual after the closure of schools and restaurants forced them to cook more meals at home.

While all tinned food sales have surged, suppliers and retailers said demand for tomatoes had outstripped that for beans, soup and tinned fish or vegetables, leaving suppliers concerned about stocks running low.

David McDiarmid, a director of Princes Group, which owns the Napolina brand, confirmed it was allocating stock to its clients to ensure it could “fairly and equitably share” what is available and prevent stocks running out before the new season begins in June.

Italian tomatoes make up about three-quarters of UK stocks, according to the Grocer trade journal, and are canned between June and September.

Diego Pariotti, the head of export at Conserve Italia, which owns the Cirio tinned tomato brand, said it could meet usual order levels but not “crazy demand”. He added they had told customers: “If you don’t start calming the fever we won’t get to the next crop.”

Pariotti said UK shoppers had bought 30% more tinned tomatoes than usual – compared with an average 15% more in other countries. “UK consumers have to understand that if they don’t go mad with stocking up for their households then products will always be on the shelves,” he said.

McDiarmid said: “It’s a seasonal crop. It’s finite. What was picked last year is what was picked and that’s all there is until 2020 harvest. We can’t bring forward the harvest.”

He said Napolina’s processing plant in Puglia, Italy, had sent out 72 full trucks on one day alone last month, about four times the normal level, as it tried to keep up with demand from stockpiling families.

While demand has since slowed, McDiarmid said staff in Italy had been doing a “Herculean job” trying to meet demand under strict physical distancing rules.

Difficulties have emerged as the surge in demand has come after two years of poor harvests. Last year, Italian crops were down 20% because of cold and wet weather. Strict physical distancing rules to prevent the spread of coronavirus have also slowed processing in Italy.

Transporting product to the UK has also been more difficult and expensive as suppliers have had to combine sea, rail and road transport to meet demand and deal with hold-ups at border crossings and difficulties in keeping drivers safe.

Supermarkets said they were confident supplies would not run out because they were turning to alternative brands and own-label products. But they confirmed there was competition over access to product between different chains.

As prices are usually set in June for the year ahead, the price of tomatoes has not gone up but suppliers’ profit margins have been squeezed by additional costs and it is likely that prices will rise for the year ahead.