Another shortage scare? Canned pumpkin could beat the odds

The rumored turkey shortage isn't the only scare buzzing around the food industry this Thanksgiving season. Canned pumpkin, due to unforeseen circumstances surrounding this year's harvest, has found itself at the center of another shortage debate.

However, just like with the turkey shortage, manufacturers don't have as much to worry about as some headlines might suggest — for now.

Pumpkin production is actually on the rise. Pumpkin harvests in the U.S. have grown by nearly one-third since 2000, from 1.46 billion pounds to 1.91 billion pounds in 2014, according to USDA data. For the past several years, this increased production has been able to keep up with growing demand, but this year, weather stepped in to shake things up for the canned pumpkin industry, particularly the industry’s biggest contributor: Libby's.

Straight from the canner

Libby's, whose parent company is Nestle, produces about 80% of the U.S. canned pumpkin supply. Nestle's word on whether there is actually a pumpkin shortage is telling.

Libby's took a hit from this year's crop troubles. "We originally reported our yield could be off by as much as a third, but updated crop reports indicate yields are reduced by half this year," Roz O’Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director at Nestle, told Food Dive in an email.

However, despite the heavy damage to Libby's pumpkin crops, O'Hearn said the company believes it will have enough pumpkin to "meet the needs presented by the fall holidays (Thanksgiving)."

"We’re carefully managing our distribution across the country and to our retailers through 'allocation,'" said O’Hearn.

The supply beyond the end of the season and into next year is not as assured.

"We won’t have 'reserve' stock to carry us into the next year so once we ship the remainder of the 2015 harvest (most likely by mid-November), we'll have no Libby's pumpkin to sell until Harvest of 2016," said O’Hearn.

Where the rumors began

Due to heavy rains, particularly in Illinois, where about 90% of processing pumpkins are grown, the ground was too wet to plant the crops on time, which is usually in April and May, according to Dr. Mohammad Babadoost, professor of plant pathology and extension specialist at the Department of Crop Sciences at University of Illinois. After those consistently heavy rains, many of the crops were lost to flooding.

In addition, two diseases impacted this year’s pumpkin crops. Phytophthora blight, which can cause leaf spot and fruit rot, among other symptoms, regularly affects the pumpkin crop, but because the ground was so wet this year, the disease spread earlier than usual. The other disease, downy mildew, was found in Illinois in July, and it affects the leaves of the plant, creating lesions that change from pale green to yellow. When the weather is moist, as it was this year, the lower leaf surface becomes covered with a downy, pale gray to purple mildew. Plus, the consistent rains made it difficult for most crop treatments to be effective.

"Because of those losses from fields and crops and low-quality fruits, people have been saying there could be a shortage," said Babadoost. "Really, there probably could be a shortage, but some have said there would be a shortage."

What this comes down to is whether demand this year will overpower the tighter supply.

"If the demand is higher, there may not be enough to satisfy the customers later on," said Babadoost. "If demand is normal, or not great, we’re not going to have any shortage of canned pumpkin."

Filed Under: Manufacturing
Top image credit: Nestle Professional