The fruit and veg supply crisis has been exacerbated by efforts to diversify post-Brexit supply chains outside the EU, an unnamed supermarket CEO claims.
He revealed to industry publication The Grocer that supply chain resilience had been hit by the "massive" shift to cheaper sources outside the EU since the UK's departure - particularly via North Africa.
A number of high-level sources have cited "difficult weather conditions" in southern Europe and northern Africa as the main cause of the shortages, which have forced Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, Lidl and Aldi to restrict purchases on certain items since last week.
Traditionally, South Europe has provided the UK with fresh produce, but Morocco has provided more this year.
With a direct shipping route bypassing the EU in 2021, it has long been considered a promising fruit & veg source after Brexit. Moreover, government data shows the UK imported £403.7 million worth of fruits and vegetables from Morocco in 2022, up 166% on the £157.7 million in 2019.
The CEO described the “massive explosion of [cheaper] Moroccan supply” as a benefit of Brexit.
But the increased reliance on these supply options also resulted in “a greater exposure to recent events”, he said. Prices inside “the EU cocoon” were higher but supplies had been “much less hard hit” by current supply chain issues, he added.
As a result, the CEO argued the current situation was partly self-inflicted, considering large parts of the farming sector had opted “to expose themselves to world markets” by voting for Brexit. “This is precisely what we voted for,” he claimed.
He also pointed out that UK pricing was higher than that of nations like Morocco, and that efforts to seek cheaper produce elsewhere had led to a decline in UK production.
Other causes of the crisis include ongoing post-Brexit border issues, Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive of the UK's Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC).
“We have heavily criticised the UK government’s border strategy which frankly, as currently published, is not fit for purpose and will drive huge delays and huge additional costs for consumers, beyond where we are today,” Jenney explained.
"What is driven by the government is the industry uncertainty not providing clarity to what the process will be and how it will operate and what the costs of that process will be," he continued, adding that a proposed new targeted operating model for border efficiency has not yet been released by the government.
But, building strong ties with EU farmers means that not all businesses are experiencing a shortage of fresh vegetables, according to Luke King, supply and technical director at Riverford Organic Farmers.
“We have developed long-term relationships with two main organic growers in Spain, and we work with these companies almost exclusively, so we aren’t having to compete with lots of other companies,” explained King.
”These strong relationships mean we are prioritised and have a better level of supply than the UK supermarkets, in most cases. This is a testament to our ethos of building long-standing relationships with growers, where we build trust, mutual respect, and a friendship working directly rather than through third-party packers as the supermarkets do."
It comes after the NFU unveiled a growth strategy last week, intended to increase UK fruit and vegetable production and minimise potential supply chain disruption.
The strategy outlines 10 ways to support the UK growing industry's performance while also facilitating long-term expansion and guaranteeing a steady supply of fresh food on supermarket shelves.
According to the plan, which is referred to as the "building blocks" of success for the industry, more sustainable energy sources must be developed, access to skilled labour must be improved, productivity investments must be made, supply chains must be more equitable, and other crucial factors must be taken into consideration in order to increase the production of fresh produce.
“The consequences of undervaluing growers can be seen on supermarket shelves right now. Shelves are empty,” said NFU president Minette Batters. “This is a reality we’ve been warning government about for many months.
“Without urgent action there are real risks that empty shelves may become more commonplace as British horticulture businesses struggle with unprecedented inflationary pressures, most notably on energy and labour costs,” she added.