SPC Ardmona is producing tomato-based products so fast to meet soaring demand — much of it driven by panic-buyers — it could face running out of stock.
The tomato harvest is down 10 per cent this year and SPC predicts it will only process about 40 000 tonnes.
Echuca-based Kagome, Australia’s largest tomato processor, has been approached by its downstream customers asking for increased supply.
Chief executive Jason Fritsch said Kagome would fulfil its own commitments first and review its plans if there was any produce left over.
But with supermarket shelves being stripped bare as soon as stock arrives in stores, the race is on for SPC to service its own major customers.
SPC chief executive Robert Giles said the factory was running around the clock and he was confident it was coping at this stage.
“We plan to finish processing around April 20, so we’re bringing in stock we had contracted with our farmers,” he said.
“We’re also trying to make sure we have tomatoes to last through to next season but we’re not sure what our competitors are doing in terms of Italian produce — how much they have will impact the amount that we produce.”
Mr Giles said SPC had also pulled some of its own lines — taking out crushed tomato and/or herb products — to boost capacity for diced tomatoes.
It had also gone through Coles and Woolworths for access to their growers so SPC could source more tomatoes.
Not only is the production line going 24/7, the company has also taken on new staff to cope with the output.
Mr Giles said despite restaurants closing, food service sales were up from hotels and nursing homes.
Rochester tomato grower Bruce Weekes said he could only harvest as much fruit as SPC could process.
“We can only bring it in when they’re ready to take it away,” he said.
“Fruit harvesting is going ahead as planned, but rain about three weeks ago delayed things.
“We could be finished by Anzac Day, depending on how much rain we get in the next few days.
“If we get too much we have to wait before we harvest them, any more than 20 mm takes too long to dry out.”
Boort grower Louis Chirnside was also going flat out harvesting to fill trucks and get them to Ardmona.
“The SPC factory has a certain capacity and this year will be no different,” he said.
“We can be thankful SPC is Australian owned and still operating.”
Mr Chirnside said he was trying to run his business as an essential service but with social distancing, no-one was working shoulder to shoulder.
He said he was also concerned by the scale of the panic-buying and its potential to force tomato rationing.
Kagome’s schedule is also in the hands of the weather, with Mr Fritsch saying it needed a relatively dry run to Anzac Day to complete its own contracts.
Mr Fritsch said Kagome dealt primarily with the food service sector.
“Obviously, pubs, clubs and the restaurant trade are struggling, or have shut down,” he said.
“While quick service venues, such as Domino's and McDonald’s, will see their takeout trade impacted in the next six to eight months.
“However, delivery services could offset some of that impact.”
Campbell Arnott's vice president supply chain Craig Funnell said while there was a shortage in some ingredients, Campbell’s Shepparton had reworked its production schedule to maximise output.
“This includes running additional shifts so we can continue to meet demand and provide essential food to Australians during this time,” he said.