Imports of salad vegetables to the UK have dropped by at least half, according to the main group representing English growers, highlighting the scale of the shortages facing households.
Four UK supermarkets began rationing products including peppers, cucumbers, lettuces and tomatoes this week after frost in Spain and north Africa led to a steep decline in availability, with the UK among the destinations worst affected by reduced supplies.
Lee Stiles, secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association, whose members also import produce, said that “around half of everything that we would expect is arriving . . . this will have the biggest effect on companies that procure in the open market”.
The British Retail Consortium said that in 2019, the last year for which it has data, imports have accounted for about 95 per cent of the tomato market in March and 90 per cent of lettuces.
A major Spanish grower told the Financial Times that current industry supplies were a third of normal levels for this time of the year, while one UK supermarket said it had around two-thirds of its usual amount of produce.
The shortage has been exacerbated by UK and Netherlands-based glasshouse growers opting not to cultivate fruit and vegetables over the winter because of high energy costs and UK labour shortages, said farming groups.
Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Morrisons are now limiting purchases.
Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey told the House of Commons on Thursday that retailers had told her the shortages were expected to last two to four weeks.
“It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country,” she said. “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now, rather than thinking necessarily about . . . lettuce and tomatoes.”
Prices have soared for salad vegetables across the continent following the poor weather. But the UK has been especially affected by shortages because of the extra journey to transport produce across the Channel, together with comparatively low retail prices for vegetables, said Stiles. Shortages have also been reported in Ireland.
UK supermarkets buy most of their vegetables under contract but some suppliers have been prioritising other contracts or selling produce at higher prices on the open market, executives said.
Pressure on UK supermarkets has been heightened by businesses such as greengrocers and hospitality outlets turning to supermarkets for their supplies, as well as by consumers’ preference for eating salads out of season.
Jesús Pérez, commercial director of Spanish grower Verdimed, said production volumes had fallen to about 30 per cent of normal levels after the autumn planting grew too fast because of unusually warm weather, then the winter planting was slow to grow.
“We think next week will be normal, but I don’t know how long it will take until the UK market will get product because of packing, transport to depots, delivery to shops,” he said.
The UK is also especially dependent on Morocco, which has placed limits on tomato exports following price spikes. Mehdi Benchekroun, of Moroccan fruit and vegetable exporter DMB & Co, said: “Because European supplies from Spain and Portugal have fallen because of the cold weather, all the buyers have come to Morocco. This situation started at the start of the year and domestic prices have risen to records.”
Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ union, said extra post-Brexit paperwork was also a factor, even though full sanitary and phytosanitary checks on imports have not yet been implemented.
“There is high demand for certain Spanish produce and if Spanish companies are approached, would they opt to sell to the British, or to EU countries which are easier to export to, where they don’t have all the paperwork?” he said.
“It’s more of a hassle exporting from Spain to the UK instead of to Germany. If you pay enough there will always be sources, but I don’t know whether UK retailers are willing to pay extremely high prices.”