Commodities: Output cut grinds down pepper supply

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The Independent Online
THE POPULARITY of the pepper mill has produced a small revolution in British tastes. Spicier black pepper now has nearly half the retail market, yet just a decade or so ago ground white accounted for about 80 per cent of sales.

Our preferences in salt are changing too, as the rock and sea types steal markets from the common table variety. But that is where the similarities end. Salt supplies are more than plentiful and prices stable, as is demand for use in foods. The decline for health reasons appears to have largely run its course, as salt has already been removed from most products as an automatic ingredient.

In contrast, pepper consumption is rising steadily and wholesale supplies are currently tighter than they have been for years, because of falling production worldwide. Spice traders warn that the shortage could worsen and send prices even higher later this year. But as long as there is no panic buying, which in the last big supply scare cleared the shops of the spice, there should be enough pepper to go round, according to Peter Knight of the London spice brokers Chambers and Knight.

But just in case anyone thinks a little stockpiling might be wise, the trade's advice is to buy from local ethnic groceries, because the mark- up is often little more than five times the raw material's import cost, compared with up to 20 times in supermarkets. The profit margin here is so big because pepper, as a slow-moving item sold in such small units, has to be made to pay for taking up valuable shelf space.

If we do stock up on peppercorns we can rest assured that their quality will barely deteriorate, with perhaps just a little loss of pungency after about 10 years or so. In the East, the spice is often treated rather like gold, as an asset with a potential for appreciation. It keeps well, because the bugs ignore it, and so is stored at times of glut for sale when conditions are better, Mr Knight says.

He is not alone in forecasting that wholesale prices have higher to go because of the market's move into deficit after five years of glut. There are 'very few dissenters' from this view, according to Robin Baker, a spice trader at John Kelly.

So far the big retail suppliers have no plans to lift their prices - and many in the industry argue that, as cuts did not follow the market's slump, rises would be unjustified. At the low point touched about 18 months ago, the wholesale price of black pepper - which is produced by leaving the green corns picked from the vine to dry in the sun - dropped below dollars 800 a tonne, its cheapest in real terms for decades. The white variety - produced by fermenting the green corns in water and then removing the hull and pulp - went down to about dollars 1,000.

Today black pepper costs about dollars 1,700 a tonne and white dollars 2,800. White pepper is traditionally dearer because, since at least 90 per cent of world supply comes from the Indonesian island of Banka, the market is far less competitive. But, because of speculative involvement in the market, white's premium is bigger than usual. The trade reports that about 8,000 tonnes - nearly a quarter of global annual consumption of the type - are being hoarded by a Far Eastern trade house, which stands to make a killing if, as expected, prices soar.

The main reason for the pepper market's strength is declining production worldwide because the vines are suffering from years of neglect. In the face of prolonged depressed sales returns, farmers in Brazil, India, Indonesia and Malaysia - which together supply about 95 per cent of the world's black pepper needs - cut the use of fertilizers and pesticides and, where possible, switched to more profitable crops.

Man-Producten, the big Rotterdam-based spice trader, expects that global exportable pepper production this season will slump by 35 per cent to a 10-year low of little more than 100,000 tonnes. Producers' reserve stocks are already depleted, while pepper manufacturers, following efforts over the years to cut costs, now get by with perhaps no more than three months' stock cover, against four times this level five to 10 years ago.

The market is therefore highly vulnerable to another production shortfall and, since it takes about five years for the pepper vine to become fully productive, new plantings offer no quick solution to the problem.

While production falls, Eastern European imports are recovering from the low levels caused by recent hard currency shortages and demand is rising steadily elsewhere.