Supermarkets are facing shortages of salad crops, including cucumbers, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes, as well as broccoli and citrus fruits amid cold weather in producing countries such as Spain and Morocco.
Shoppers have been complaining on social media about low stocks, particularly of cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, as importers said supplies had been affected by a mixture of unseasonable weather and storms in the Mediterranean combined with a reduction in the amount of crops planted in heated glasshouses in the Netherlands as energy bills have soared.
Two big importers said they were managing to fulfil contracts to their main supermarket clients but had been forced to lower quality specifications, find alternative sources of supply or offer a limited range of options since the chilly weather started in January.
Industry insiders said availability of produce is down by between 30% and 40% on some crops. Wholesale prices have also shot up, adding to inflation in stores as well as empty shelves.
The harvest of peppers was down 70% in Spain and cucumbers by up to 50% in the country’s Almería region, according to the catering supplier Reynolds’ latest crop report.
Market prices for tomatoes are two to three times normal levels, the boss of Nationwide Produce, Tim O’Malley, told the Fresh Produce Journal. “The biggest issue we now have as an industry is not inflation, it’s mother nature. She’s wiping the floor with inflation,” he said.
At this time of year Murcia in Spain produces an estimated 80% of many salad and vegetable crops sold in the UK. UK production does not usually begin until late March or April.
Italy, Morocco and elsewhere in north Africa are often used as an alternatives, but these areas have also had cold weather in recent weeks, and shipments from Morocco have recently been affected by storms.
“Everyone is going to be short in one way or another,” said Andy Weir at Reynolds.
Nigel Jenney, the chief executive of the UK’s Fresh Produce Consortium trade body, said the problems with supply were down to “a whole lot of issues” including shortages of labour and high energy costs as well as the weather.
He said cafes, hospitals, care homes and independent traders could be among the worst affected by the shortages as they were supplied by wholesalers that might be more vulnerable than big supermarkets to short-term shifts in production.
The problems could last several weeks, until UK production kicks in, but Jenney said those with glasshouses in the UK, who might usually be planting at this point in the year, were also facing a “horrendous cost of production” as a result of increases in labour, fertiliser and energy costs, and were likely to be reining in their plans as a result.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets, told PA: “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes.
“However, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.”