Independent greengrocers which have remained fully stocked despite the ongoing vegetable shortage say they have seen ‘queues out the door’ – while supermarket shelves are left bare.
Thomas Hagon, 39, from Reg The Veg green grocers in Clifton, Bristol, claimed ‘the produce is there for supermarkets to purchase but higher prices have turned the chains off’.
The likes of Aldi, Morrisons, Asda and Tesco have limited sales of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as frosty weather in Spain and Morocco has hit imports – with customers in all four stores given limits to how much produce they can buy.
But despite an increase in cost price, Mr Hagon claims greengrocers have been able to remain stocked up, and says he has fresh tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers because ‘customers are happy to pay extra for them’.
He predicted supermarkets will be forced to increase prices in the near future – after Environment Secretary Therese Coffey warned the crisis could last for another month and advised struggling families to turn to British vegetables such as turnips.
Meanwhile, some restaurants struggling to cope with the shortages have been forced to remove tomato-dependent items such as pizza and pasta from their menus.
Thomas Hagon (pictured), 39, from Reg The Veg green grocers in Clifton, Bristol, claimed ‘the produce is there for supermarkets to purchase but higher prices have turned the chains off’
Baz Dawson (pictured), owner of Fresh and Fruity, in Preston, revealed his salad stocks have not been directly affected during the national shortage because he buys locally
A view of empty shelves in a supermarket in Liverpool, Britain, on February 20, 2023
Mr Hagon said Reg The Veg had a period of low stock a few weeks ago when supermarkets were selling the vegetables at a lower price.
But since the wholesale price has reportedly nearly doubled, averaging at £15 before and now as much as £30, Mr Hagon said supermarkets ‘won’t pay it’, while greengrocers, like Reg The Veg, will.
He said: ‘We had shortages due to availability and low numbers about three weeks ago and supermarkets were still pumping out vegetables at low prices.
‘It’s got to the point where now supermarkets can’t buy it at the right price as it’s increased so much.
‘It is available they just won’t pay the money for it.
‘Whereas we can, and we can then supply our customers and pass on the slight increase in price.
‘We’ve still had to increase our own prices in some areas – cherry vine tomatoes are now £9.99 a kilo which is around double the normal price.
‘We do say to customers that these peppers or tomatoes for example can be quite expensive but they’re happy to pay that.
‘Of course, nationally it’s very difficult because of the volumes that supermarkets get in, but if they’re quoted £25 or £30 pounds for a wholesale shipment, and they wont pay for it.’
The likes of Aldi , Morrisons, Asda and Tesco have limited sales of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to customers as frosty weather in Spain and Morocco has hit imports (Pictured: Independent greengrocer Thomas Hagon inside his fully stocked shop in Bristol)
Empty crates in the tomatoes section of a fresh produce aisle of a Tesco supermarket in London on February 23
Why are there shortages of fruit and veg in the UK? Rising prices, heating costs and bad weather abroad are all blamed
What is causing the shortages?
Cold weather in Spain and Morocco has drastically hit the availability of vegetables in British markets along with soaring energy prices.
The supply problems are blamed on bad weather and high energy costs making greenhouses more costly to heat.
Some critics have cited red tape on post-Brexit imports from the EU as an issue.
Tim O’Malley, of major importer Nationwide Produce, said volatile growing conditions had seen wholesale spot prices for fresh produce lines soar by as much as 300 per cent.
Growers in Spain and elsewhere on the Continent are reportedly sending produce to European supermarkets rather than to the UK because they are more willing to pay the higher prices.
High energy prices – linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – are also a factor because it has become more expensive to heat greenhouses.
Which fruit and veg are affected?
The problem started with tomatoes but has since widened to peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
Is Brexit to blame?
While some critics have cited red tape on imports from Europe, industry expert Mr O’Malley said the single biggest factor behind the crisis was ‘Mother Nature’.
He said: ‘I can honestly say that in the 40 years I’ve been in this trade, I’ve never seen such high spot prices across such a broad range of products for such a prolonged period of time.’
He added: ‘It’s not about Brexit – it’s about different buying models’.
Farming minister Mark Spencer said at the NFU conference yesterday: ‘What has driven some of this is a frost in Morocco and Spain in November and December.
‘This can damage a lot of the salad and brassica crops, which we have traditionally relied on at this time of year so that has created a gap in the market.
‘It’s very difficult for UK producers to grow cauliflowers, for example over winter. They are not resistant to frost. It’s not possible to grow cauliflowers in January in the United Kingdom unless you grow them in a greenhouse.’
Why are European supermarkets not suffering from shortages?
Experts say that it is because of the way that British supermarkets buy produce compared to those on the continent.
Tim O’Malley says retailers in the UK tend to agree prices once or twice a year so they and shoppers can get certainty on price.
This tends to be a winter deal for produce from Spain and Morocco and a summer deal for UK produce.
Mr O’Malley says that in Europe they tend to agree monthly prices, meaning that supermarkets find it easier to buy when prices change.
Adam Leyland, Editor-in-Chief of The Grocer, said that UK supermarkets are ‘in denial’ and need to be more nimble to avoid shortages like the current one.
What are the other factors?
Travel disruption including ferry cancellations have also caused disruption.
There has been strong winds disrupting ferries from Morocco and flooding in the country.
Frost has also slowed growth and damaged crops.
How long will it last?
Phil Pearson, group development director at APS Produce said delays are likely to continue until, ‘the end of April into May.’
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets, said: ‘Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.
‘While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, 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.’
One of his colleagues said there were queues stretching out the door on Sunday after customers scrambled for tomatoes and peppers.
She initially wasn’t sure why but then realised it may have been down to the supermarket shortage.
Mr Hagon said he isn’t sure what the solution to the problem is, but that it will probably result in supermarkets having to charge more.
He said conditions on the continent have left prices at an ‘exceptionally high’ rate.
He added: ‘I don’t know what the solution is to it, they’ll just have to charge more – some fruit or veg hasn’t gone up for a decade or more.
‘When there’s more competition from other European countries that supply produce it’ll bring prices down – It’s always high at this time of the year, it’s just exceptionally high at the moment.
‘We’ve seen the cold weather in Morocco. They’ve got snow – it’s crazy.
‘We’ve got used to eating what we want to eat all year round so when things go a bit short it can be a bit of a shock.’
Other greengrocers have also found themselves with no choice but to double their prices.
Paul Semple, 43, of Lloyds Green Grocers in Bristol, said: ‘Tomatoes are hard to get, courgette, cucumbers all hard to get hold of.
‘They’re twice the price, that’s how scarce they are.
‘It’s always hard to get produce this time a year but this year we’re nearly at £10 a kilo for tomatoes when we rarely go above £5.
‘We’re still getting the gear, just prices are up and very expensive.’
Another fruit and veg trader urged people to head to their local market stalls for fresh groceries.
Baz Dawson, owner of Fresh and Fruity, in Preston, revealed his salad stocks have not been directly affected during the national shortage because he buys locally.
The Preston Market trader said that while big supermarkets will now struggle to get hold of their usual cheaper items from abroad, he will continue to buy from farmers in Lancashire and the surrounding areas.
Four of the UK’s leading supermarkets – Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Morrisons – have put limitations in place on the amount of certain items customers can buy.
The problem started with tomatoes but has since widened to peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
Tesco and Aldi have introduced limits of three per customer on sales of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Asda is limiting customers to three on sales of lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflowers and raspberry punnets, along with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Morrisons has set a limit of two on cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.
Mr Dawson says it is the international transportation that has got the supermarkets in a pickle, with fewer places for them to buy their goods.
But because traders like him keep things local, they are not worried about stocks lasting. He says every day can be different when it comes to buying locally and because of that, he is less worried he’ll face what the supermarkets are currently dealing with.
Mr Dawson said: ‘We only deal with top end fresh fruits, veg and salads. There’s currently such a national shortage on salads and foreign vegetables.
‘We go to the wholesalers and buy either direct or off the farmer or the wholesaler to cut costs, but to stick with the quality. With it being such a struggle nationally, the supermarkets will struggle but with us going direct to the wholesalers, we can still get hold of limited salad stock.
‘Most of our vegetables are grown and cut within a ten mile radius during certain seasons of the year. Even for us, when we’re in the depths of winter we sometimes have to go for the cheaper produce too.
‘Supermarkets have not got the stock of salads in now whatsoever but here we do have, from the wholesaler. Because they haven’t got it in the supermarket, like they didn’t when the pandemic hit, they come to us in the market to buy fresh produce and salad. We keep going, like we did two years ago.’
Fluctuating stocks can occur daily in the market trade, Mr Dawson says, but having already dealt with it since the day he began selling, he says the fear of low stocks of certain items is less of a fear.
In the winter months the UK imports around 95 per cent of its tomatoes and 90 per cent of its lettuces, mostly from Spain and northern Africa. The British Retail Consortium said disruption was expected to last a few weeks.
Retailers have stressed that buying limits are temporary until supplies improve in the coming days or weeks, helped by the UK moving into its growing season.
It comes after the Environment Secretary suggested yesterday that Brits could consider eating turnips to ease the national vegetable shortage.
Farmers also warned of a shortage of leeks that is likely to hamper St David’s Day celebrations in Wales next week.
Therese Coffey told MPs the ‘temporary’ shortages were caused by ‘very unusual weather’ but were expected to end in another four weeks.
Ms Coffey said that consumers might want to turn to British ‘specialisms’ at this time of year to support domestic farmers.
She added: ‘I am led to believe by my officials… we anticipate the situation will last about another two to four weeks.
‘Even if we cannot control the weather it is important that we try and make sure the supply continues to not be frustrated in quite the way it has been due to these unusual weather incidents.’
Salad fans told to buy Micro Tom plant that can produce 6,000 cherry tomatoes in a year
Salad fans are being urged to start growing a super plant that can yield thousands of tomatoes in case the fruit and veg shortage continues into summer.
The Micro Tom is a small plant that has been known to produce a staggering 6,000 cherry tomatoes in a single year.
In contrast, people can only expect to harvest 200 tomatoes from a regular plant.
Greenfingered Joy and Michael Michaud are encouraging growers to get hold of hanging baskets and start planting seeds now to enjoy a steady supply of tomatoes from June through to November.
Last year, Joy, from West Bexington, Dorset, kept a tally of the number she was picking and all her plants produced 5,000 to 6,000 tomatoes each.
She said they ‘couldn’t eat them fast enough’ and had to give away bags of toms to neighbours to save them from the compost heap.
Joy, 64, said: ‘We recommend that people enjoy the winter vegetables during this shortage and get planting to ensure a supply of delicious tomatoes in summer.
‘If people can get hold of hanging baskets and polytunnels that will be the perfect environment to grow them in through March and April.
‘Homegrown tomatoes always taste better than shop bought ones and this way people can make sure they have plenty to eat.
‘Last year I was struggling to count the number I was picking off our Micro Tomato plants.
‘Every plant we had produced around 6,000 tomatoes each. We couldn’t believe it, they are miracle plants.
‘I set an initial target of 1,000 tomatoes a plant but we quickly passed that and I set another one at 5,000.
‘That is thousands more than you could expect to get from a normal tomato plant. It’s just an incredible variety.
‘While the tomatoes are small they’re very tasty – they’re little balls of flavour.’
Joy and Michael run Sea Spring Seeds and grow and sell seeds for 150 types of chilli.
Ms Coffey agreed with Tory MP Selaine Saxby who suggested eating seasonal vegetables could solve the issue.
Ms Saxby said: ‘We should be eating more seasonally and supporting our own British farmers’, adding that if shoppers did so, ‘a lot of these problems would be avoided’.
Ms Coffey said: ‘It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country.
‘A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about… lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world are trying to satisfy.’
Labour’s environment spokesman Jim McMahon questioned suggestions that food shortages were entirely caused by external forces, claiming ministers could have done more to support farmers with access to ‘the energy-intensive support scheme’, and increased quotas on labour to help with workforce shortages.
Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne ridiculed suggestions that Brexit was responsible for the shortages.
He told the Commons: ‘If only I had been told before I voted for Brexit that it was going to cause frosts in Morocco, I could have made a different decision, couldn’t I?’
Asked about the turnip suggestion, a No 10 spokesman said: ‘We don’t believe it’s for us to tell people what they should or shouldn’t buy.’
He added: ‘What the Secretary of State was doing was setting out the importance of celebrating the produce that we grow here in the UK.’
Ms Coffey drew further criticism for suggesting people struggling to afford food bills could consider working more hours.
She said: ‘One of the best ways to boost their incomes is not only to get into work if they’re not in work already, but potentially to work some more hours.’
After the debate, Labour’s Rachael Maskell accused Ms Coffey of ‘shifting blame for food poverty on to people because they are on low wages and are poor’.
Budget supermarket food is seeing average annual price rises of an astonishing 21.5 per cent.
A Which? study found the poorest homes were the worst hit.
Some products have seen huge increases, such as tins of Growers Harvest sliced carrots up 63 per cent at Tesco to 33p, and packs of pork sausages at Asda up 58 per cent to £1.27. Budget Creamfields French brie also saw a 96.6 per cent rise at Tesco to £1.57.
Farmers are warning of an ‘extraordinary’ shortage of leeks which threatens St David’s Day celebrations in Wales next week.
British producers of the much-loved seasonal vegetable, as well as onions, cauliflower and broccoli, have had to write off crops due to a lack of rain and deep frosts.
Supermarkets including Aldi Morrisons, Asda and Tesco have limited sales of vegetables, but Therese Coffey suggested people could use turnips as a substitute
Leek yields were down by as much as 30 per cent following the ‘most difficult growing season ever’
A sign limiting customers to three items each is seen next to empty boxes in the tomato and peppers section of a Tesco
Some supermarkets have already run out of leeks, while the ones that do reach the shelves are often of poor quality and stunted – bad news for anyone planning to serve up traditional dishes such as a Welsh cawl or Wrexham bake on March 1.
Leek Growers Association chairman Tim Casey said yields were down by as much as 30 per cent following the ‘most difficult growing season ever’. He added: ‘We are predicting the supply of home-grown leeks will be exhausted by April, with no British leeks in the shops during May and June.’
Reputedly introduced to Wales by the Phoenicians when they were trading for tin in the British Isles, the leek has long been associated with the Welsh Saint David.
In 640AD, according to legend, the Briton King Cadwaladr and his men wore leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves in battle against invading Saxons. The leek has remained a national symbol ever since.