- Filipino food manufacturer Ramar Foods reported of a shortage of its ube or purple yam due to high demand and limited production resulting from challenges related to COVID-19. The root tuber is used in several ice cream flavors sold under Ramar's Magnolia brand.
- Ramar said that it will continue to distribute its ube products to Asian stores within the U.S., but supplies will be limited.
- The company said it is working to re-establish a normal supply of ube, which it imports directly from the Philippines. Ube is a winter crop, and a representative from Ramar Foods said the ingredient is not abundant during the summer.
Ube spread its wings as a breakout ingredient several years ago when the aubergine-colored yam started making waves on Instagram as a key natural coloring for desserts from ice cream to cheesecakes. According to Ramar Foods, ube is traditional comfort food in the Philippines, where it is used as an ingredient in desserts to impart a vibrant hue as well as a taste that is described as somewhere between vanilla and pistachio.
Though traditionally an Asian ingredient, ube has very clearly crossed into the mainstream market with products sold at major retailers from Walmart to Amazon. Artificial intelligence platform Tastewise identified ube last year as an ingredient trend in dessert that was spreading from the U.S. to other parts of the world.
Still, the product remains relatively niche as it has not established itself as an essential ingredient in American kitchens. Nevertheless, its limited supply is indicative of a larger trend gaining steam as the pandemic drags on. Ube is not the only ingredient to suffer from supply chain challenges and agricultural labor shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced companies to shift from food service to retail and retool supply chains to ensure that a ready supply of ingredients was available.
Other staple ingredients including garlic, mushrooms and carbon dioxide have all faced problems as manufacturers struggled to fulfill consumer demand.
Garlic for the U.S. is primarily sourced from abroad, similar to ube. The majority of the ingredient consumed in this country is imported from China, where the novel coronavirus originated. As a result, supply chains have been interrupted, which weakened supply and increased prices. The cost of garlic was up 29% from last year during the pandemic, while wholesale prices were up 60% from the start of this year, according to The Wall Street Journal. In response, companies looked elsewhere to source the allium, causing the domestic supply chain to be burdened by a sudden, massive increase in demand. A garlic farm in Gilroy, California told the Mercury News it went from selling 500,000 pounds of garlic a week to 800,000 pounds.
Sourcing domestically is not always possible, though. Some ingredients and ethnic flavors are sometimes limited to the regions in which they originated. Coffee is an example of specialized agriculture that requires a particular climate, usually within the Tropic of Cancer, making U.S. domestically grown coffee essentially non-existent. Due to restricted international trade resulting from quarantines that also contributed to labor shortages, coffee prices to jumped in April and coffee futures for May gained more than 15% as of April 16, according to CNBC.
So far this has not stopped caffeine fiends from buying coffee, CNBC cited IRI data showing spending on coffee France and Italy rising recently. However, a similar scenario might curtail consumption for popular ethnic ingredients that are less deeply integrated into U.S. culture.
To weather this storm — and a potential secondary COVID-19 spike in the fall — manufacturers are going to have to take a hard look at their supply chains and have a plan to move sourcing should one producer become unavailable. Bill Aimutis, executive director of the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, previously told Food Dive that in many cases, this may result in companies reverting to domestic sourcing.