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Industry offers insight into vitamin C supply chain

The coronavirus highlights how much the world depends on China for key ingredients.

The US Department of Agriculture recently reached out to stakeholders in the dietary supplement industry to gain insight on the toll the coronavirus has taken on businesses. In response, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) surveyed their members on disruptions they may be experiencing. CRN identified a number of supply chain challenges such as shipment delays, shortages and increased pricing. As a follow up, NutraIngredients-USA​ spoke with several key players in the industry.

“The last time we chatted, we talked about disruption by things like cannabis and CBD, well guess what? Now there’s a new disruption. It’s COVID-19 and a lot of people are saying, ‘okay, I have to get healthy, I have to stay at home, so they’re loading up on vitamin C,”​ said Randal Kreienbrink, vice president of marketing at Martin Bauer, a global ingredient supplier.

Vitamin C a hot commodity

Indeed, recent weeks have put a spotlight on health and wellness, with many turning to vitamin C.

For those seeking a natural source of vitamin C, the ingredient supplier sells acerola and acai. Kreienbrink told us that acerola, which somes from South America, is their biggest seller in that category. “Right now, we’re not seeing big delays. We’re working around the decreased hours of the shippers down in South America, but we are still getting product out.”

Martin Bauer uses vitamin C from China in its nutritional blends. Fortunately, the company gets their product by ship. “We don’t air freight product because it’s too expensive. But if you do need to air freight product, it’s tough right now just because there’s no air travel between China and the US and it’s difficult to get around.”

Back at it

Kreienbrink said demand for vitamin C is up 20% compared to this time last year. “Our ascorbic acid and vitamin C that we’re bringing in directly from China is kind of back to normal even with the demand and requests up. My people in purchasing are telling me Chinese exports are pretty much back to normal. That’s with shipping with containers by sea,” ​adding “I contacted our purchasing manager and director, and they both said China is not the issue, unless you want air freight.”

Tony Xue, General Manager at ingredientsonline.com, echoed a similar experience. Xue told NutraIngredients-USA​ that things in China are starting to look up. “Production in China has resumed as they start to recover. Vitamin C also doesn’t have a tariff associated with it, so for now, production will likely remain stable, but that could change with market demand and new supply. Two big new factories, NHU and Anhui Tiger, have started production on vitamin C and supply will likely be stable through at least the middle of the year, and prices could even fall in the second half of the year.”

Varying experiences

However, that’s not the case for everyone. Vincent Tian, CEO and founder of online retailer NutriVitaShop based in California, said he is experiencing a shortage of vitamins, especially ascorbic acid. “Most of the manufacturers are overseas. Most of the supply is being bought up by Europe and there is a shortage right now in the US. Prices for vitamin C from every manufacturer are already rising and whatever supply that’s in the US will be gone soon.”

Kevin Baranowsky, who owns Nevada-based BulkSupplements.com spoke with NutraIngredients-USA​ two weeks ago​. He told us their vitamin C sales had recently skyrocketed and were nearly out-of-stock.

“We were lucky; Vitamin C is one of our top sellers and we had blanket commitments and we have product on the water waiting to be delivered.  But prices are going up. Vitamin C was at an all time low at about $2.90 a kilo for ascorbic acid. Now it’s up around $4 to $5 a kilo,”​ Baranowsky said.

“As of right now, we have not seen any price gouging. Not yet anyway,”​ said Kreienbrink.

A complicated picture

Not long ago, China was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, the number of cases have been drastically lowered. As many get back to work there, the worst appears to be over in China, although questions are now being raised about whether the country has fudged its official figures on total cases and deaths during the height of the outbreak.

“It’s a complex year, going back to the tariffs with China, and then with the coronavirus, so it’s really hard to totally put everything into perspective with pricing and volumes and how this all will play out,”​ said Kreienbrink.