Coronavirus doom means boom for pasta makers
A man wearing a face mask buys pasta in a supermarket in Pfastatt, eastern France, as people stock up on goods amid the outbreak of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. AFP
It may be all doom and gloom as the coronavirus outbreak completely upends the world we knew but pasta makers may never have had it so good as panic-stricken shoppers stock up on a basic food to survive the crisis.
Scenes of mayhem in supermarkets around the world typically hone in on pasta shelves stripped bare in a matter of minutes, sending manufacturers into overdrive to try and keep up with demand. "We are now 90 percent up in our sales over the past three weeks and more recently, up more than 100 percent," Xavier Riescher, head of France's top agri-food company the Panzani group, told AFP.
Riescher, who is also head of the French pasta makers industry association, said his factories normally did not operate over the weekend -- but that has all changed now and they are on the go night and day. "We are working seven days out of seven, 24 hours out of 24; there has been an exceptional mobilisation of French workers," he added.
It is the same story in Italy, the badly hit epicentre of the European outbreak, where production runs non-stop at La Molisana, the country's fourth largest pasta maker. "Since the beginning of February, output is up more than 50 percent in Italy," said Michel Liquidato, sales director for the company in France.
The problem now is to keep up with demand. Longer hours for the workforce are not enough on their own, Riescher said, noting that manufacturers have concentrated on making the simple forms of pasta rather than more elaborate versions.
"When you make farfalle, you need twice the time you need for shell pasta because its more complex," he said. So for the industry the focus is on about 10 types of the simplest pasta such as shell, spaghetti, macaroni or penne, to reduce production time and costs. "That is true for Panzani, for Barilla, for Garofalo, which makes very up market versions. You concentrate on what you can make," Riescher added.
No supply problems
It is the same story for another kitchen staple rice, Riescher said, with Panzani's Winged Bull brand seeing sales soar 70 percent in the past few weeks, and couscous.
But despite the pressure, he said there would be no problem with supplies. "There is always lots of stock. All the factories in France are continuing to produce and I can speak for all in the industry association on that," he said. "That is true in Italy too. Certainly there are some factories which have a few problems in the lockdown zone in the north but for the moment, they continue to produce," he added.
"Despite this difficult situation, none of our sites are currently subject to lockdown measures," the Barilla group told AFP.
However, some companies are finding they are having to make a choice between which customers they can serve. "We need to supply in priority the Italian market and those countries which have been clients for several years," said Liquidato.
The company had only recently started sales in France, he said, adding that it had had to pass up several orders to concentrate on its established markets. Another concern is that if demand continues to increase in the coming months, will there be enough of the hard wheat needed to make pasta?
"We do not see any interruption in stocks in coming weeks and we watch carefully to ensure that the logistics are in place to ensure supply to our clients," said Axereal, one of the top cereal suppliers in France.