The price of olive oil could soar, importers have warned, because Greek producers are stockpiling their product due to fears about the state of the country's economy.

Filippo Berio, the UK's biggest olive oil brand, said prices were already 20% higher than they were a year ago due to factors such as growing demand worldwide, and warned that Greek producers' reticence to sell their oil could make the situation worse.

"Greek growers consider stocks of olive oil in tanks to be a safer bet than cash in a Greek bank," said managing director Walter Zanré. "Greece is a source of high-quality extra virgin and this is putting additional pressure on prices. At some point the oil will have to be sold, but in the short term it could cause a spike in prices," he added.

Greece is the third-largest producer of olive oil, behind Spain and Italy. And there are concerns that Spanish producers will adopt a similar strategy as a result of the downgrading of Spain's credit rating and increasing uncertainty over public deficit and the economy. A spokeswoman for RH Amar, distributors of Bertolli, owned by the Spanish Grupo SOS, said the company was concerned. "There is a chance that the most recent economic instability in Spain will encourage growers and producers to 'drip feed' the market and push prices up. The economic climate in Spain is unstable and if the growers decide they can afford to use their oil as cash in the bank, prices are likely to spike as a result."

The main hope now was that the daily pressures of running a business would force producers to continue selling, she added. "Growers and producers still have overheads, production facilities and wages to pay and so need to have a steady stream of income through the sale of their oil to maintain cashflow."

Zanré said that while the Spanish market was still fluid, Spanish producers might be tempted not to harvest the next crop of olives in November in order to drive prices even higher. But he remained hopeful the prospect of a good harvest would mean Spanish and Greek producers would want to sell remaining stocks by the autumn.

The high commodity price of olive oil is in sharp contrast with other edible oils. The price of vegetable and seed oils has fallen ­significantly this year, ­following massive hikes last year.

The price of vegetable oil has fallen 16%, contributing to a 20% drop in value sales of vegetable oil and pushing extra virgin olive oil back into the top spot as the biggest-selling oil by value [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 16 May].

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