Brown sugar shortage leaves bitter taste for New Zealand’s home bakers

Lead contamination scare and global supply chain disruption add up to recipe for Christmas disappointment, with dried fruit also in short supply

Last modified on Thu 9 Dec 2021 22.18 EST

A mass recall of brown sugar in New Zealand, prompted by fears of lead contamination, has left home bakers scrambling for alternatives in the lead up to the festive season, while global supply chain disruptions have caused gaps on the supermarket shelves.

The country’s only sugar refinery, NZ Sugar Limited, was forced to make four recalls of its sugar products after low levels of lead were detected in some of its batches. Food Safety New Zealand is investigating the handling of the recall, after three incidents where recalled products ended up back on supermarket shelves.

The company expects it will have sugar back in supply by Christmas, but until then home bakers are having to ditch some of their favourite recipes.

Morven Walker describes herself as a passionate baker. She has been a regular volunteer for the not-for-profit Good Bitches Baking for three years. Finding brown sugar for her usual recipes is proving a problem. “It’s impossible, it’s just not there,” she said.

“It makes a lot of what I’m usually known for – my go-to recipes – difficult.”

That includes her Lazy Daisy cake, topped with a grilled icing made with butter and “lots of brown sugar”.

Home-bakers are not the only ones affected. Some small bakeries and food-stall operators have informed their customers via social media they will halt production, until the sugar hits the shelves. Meanwhile, large bakeries are offering to portion out their bulk bags and sell small packs to those desperate for a sugar-fix.

Brown sugar is not the only item shoppers are struggling to get, with reports of cocoa, prunes and, in another blow to Christmas baking, dried fruit being hard to find.

New Zealand’s biggest supermarket chain, Countdown, said: “Global freight challenges have been going on for over eighteen months now, which has caused increased wait times and costs to get products to New Zealand.

“We’ve done a lot of forward planning, and have brought in early shipments of most of our seasonal Christmas products, which are now ready in stores.”

The only item it says it is having ongoing problems getting is cat food.

Tava Olsen, the director of supply chain management at the University of Auckland, said trade was “congested and lumpy” at the moment, leading to random shortages of products and making it very hard to predict what shortages will arise.

“There have been changes in supply. For example, China shutting down because of Covid outbreaks, LA being congested because of a shortage of truck drivers meaning they can’t unload the cargo. And then there’s the demand side issues, because people’s shopping habits have changed.”

New Zealand’s location is also a disadvantage.

“We are sort of at the end of it and we’re very small from a global volume perspective. So we’re often not high priority, and our own exporters can sometimes struggle to get products on ships going out,” Olsen said.

New Zealanders could expect to see some easing of the supply chain disruption in the next six months, Olsen said, but also an increase in prices.

“In terms of the customers experience, it will get better … because stores have been working hard to build their supply chains and ordering things in. Any importer in New Zealand has worked out these lead times are long and unpredictable. But it does add costs.”

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