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Why Are Supermarkets Running Out Of Some Fruits And Vegetables?

Empty shelves at a supermarket in London, February 2023 (Alamy)

5 min read

Some supermarkets have placed sales limits on certain fruits and vegetables as a result of shortages of certain products including tomatoes and salad leaves.

The government has said that the supply chain issues are as a result of “poor weather” in southern Europe and North Africa, two regions that grow a portion of the UK’s fresh produce, while the Environment Secretary has suggested that people should “cherish” seasonal foods such as turnips.  

There have been warnings that the issues could last for several weeks. So, why are there shortages of some produce, and what could it mean for the government? 

What is happening? 

Supermarkets including Tesco, Aldi, and Asda are among those to have limited some fruit and veg sales. 

Tesco and Aldi have restricted tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to three packets per customer. Asda have the same restrictions, and also have similar rules on other products, including lettuce, broccoli, salad bags and raspberries. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said they “understand public concern” over food supplies, but “the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain and is well equipped to deal with disruption”.

A spokesperson said that officials will soon be holding a meeting with supermarket bosses. 

“We remain in close contact with suppliers, who are clear that current issues relating to the availability of certain fruits and vegetables were predominantly caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa where they are produced,” they said.  

Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told the Commons she is “conscious that consumers want a year-round choice” when asked about when people should be eating more seasonally, meaning that supplies were more focussed on what is available in the UK at this time of year, rather than importing warm-weather growers like tomatoes. 

“It is important to make sure that we cherish our specialisms in this country," she said. "Many people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about lettuce, tomatoes and similar.”

In the winter, the UK sources as much as 95 per cent of its tomatoes from abroad, alongside 90 per cent of its lettuces, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

These numbers drop significantly during the warmer months, with almost all lettuces being home grown in the summer, as well as 60 per cent of the tomato stock.  

What about Brexit? 

SNP Defra spokesperson Patricia Gibson told MPs on Thursday that “farmers across the country have been warning of the risk of food shortages for some time as a result of rising costs and Brexit trade barriers”. 

Coffey told the Commons that she does not “recognise” Gibson’s account, and  pointed again to unusual weather conditions. But earlier this week, the president of the National Farmers’ Union raised concerns about post-Brexit trade and support at their annual conference. 

Minette Batters told the Birmingham event that she is “very concerned” about the “cumulative impact” trade deals with Australia and New Zealand could have on some parts of the market, and said officials are “watching like hawks” negotiations with other nations including Canada and Mexico. 

She also said there is a “worrying lack of transparency on how the budget is being spent” on environmental land management schemes, the financial support programmes for farmers to improve the environment that replaces EU cash. 

Batters added: “We should not be in this situation after more than six and a half years since the EU Referendum.”

What about energy? 

Batters also pointed to increasing energy costs as a problem that food producers are facing. 

She called for “dedicated support for the energy intensive sectors of agriculture and horticulture. 

“While the government has such a scheme covering other industries, no farming or growing business qualifies,” she told the conference. 

There were similar sentiments from Conservative MP Greg Smith, who asked Coffey to “work closely” with new Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps “to see whether we can reclassify what is energy intensive industry”. 

“That could revolutionise British farming and keep businesses afloat,” he added.

What does Labour say? 

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon claimed the shortages are “the result of the government’s indifference and dithering” on food security. 

He said that he understands the impact of external factors including the Covid pandemic, war in Ukraine and Brexit, but asked “what is in the government’s control” and “what levers do they have to make the situation better today?” 

McMahon criticised the “trade deals that undersell UK farmers” and said that officials “could have made sure that the labour quotas were sufficient to ensure that food was not rotting in the fields”.

What does industry want to happen next? 

Farmers have said that they need “action not words” from ministers when it comes to challenges in the agricultural sector, including “managing volatility and building resilience” in the food supply chain. 

Batters told the NFU conference that the “clock is ticking” and the government must act to “guarantee food security”, “back British farmers” and “promote domestic food production”. 

“The clock is ticking," she said. 

“It’s ticking for those farmers and growers facing costs of production higher than the returns they get for their produce.

“It’s ticking for the country, as inflation remains stubbornly high and the affordability and availability of food come under strain.

“It’s ticking for our planet, as climate change necessitates urgent, concerted action to reduce emissions and protect our environment.

“And it’s ticking for government – to start putting meaningful, tangible and effective meat on the bones of the commitments it has made.”

 

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