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It's a money story

UK shortages? "Enough iceberg lettuce to sink the Titanic"

While consumers run into empty shelves or are limited when buying fresh produce, UK wholesalers deny the produce shortages and say it's simply a matter of money. "We have enough iceberg lettuce to sink the Titanic. Go online now, and we will deliver the next day." 

The shortage of salad items in the UK supermarkets has been well documented the past few days, with some of the major retailers limiting sales of tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce per customer. 

Current and long-term causes
There are multiple reasons behind the shortages. The reason for the current shortages is the cold weather in Spain and Morocco, where most of the produce would come from at this time of the year. But behind this pressured market is the market situation the produce industry has warned about for many months: Due to insecurity about their ROI caused by higher energy prices, costs of labor, fertilizer, and utilities, and no guarantees given by the fresh produce industry, growers have left their greenhouses empty, either to plant later or to not plant at all. 

"The delayed start to the growing cycle means it will be another two months before most British tomatoes are ready for picking," Phil Pearson with APS Produce told Sky News during the National Farmers' Union conference in Birmingham. "This year, we have "grown later to try to recover some value because everybody's been squeezed on prices - not just for energy, but fertilizer, labor, everything has gone up," he said. "So instead of starting [harvesting] end of March, it'll be more like the end of April into May." APS Produce, which usually picks 650 million tomatoes a year from 70 hectares, has let some of its glasshouses stand empty during dark winter days to avoid the cost of lighting them. 

The situation for Dutch growers is the same. Dutch-lit glasshouse production, usually an important supplier to the UK market, would normally be around 800 hectares, but only 100 hectares were planted this year. 

With there being fewer local produce available on the European market, the delay in Spanish produce put a fire to an already tense market, resulting in exploding prices. 

UK Prices
When it comes down to the availability in the stores, it's a money story. Price tags on the empty UK supermarkets show prices way lower than in other shops or even countries. Baby plum tomatoes, for example, are offered on the Tesco UK website for 3,08 pound/kg, whereas the price at Dutch retailer Albert Heijn is 5,98 euro/kg. Sainsbury offers a cauliflower for 95P, which is offered for 2,99 at Dutch retailer Jumbo.

This is also what UK wholesalers say: produce is available at the markets and local greengrocers, it just costs more. "There's no shortages of produce here," says UK wholesaler Perry Blinders on Twitter, showing their magazine filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, whatever. "Go online now, and we will deliver the next day to your home business or pub/bar. Tomatoes? How many do you want? Cucumbers by the pallet load! Iceberg lettuce, enough to sink the Titanic!." And indeed, on their website, the products are available - however, at a price level much higher than the empty UK retailers.  

Daily spot prices
"There is no shortage at the market but produce is expensive. We buy at daily spot prices, and some products have doubled, even tripled, in price due to the weather in Spain and Morocco and also around the world. It all has an impact on prices", said Paul Murphy with Yes Chef, New Covent Garden Wholesale Market.

"We have had to pass this extra cost onto our customers in order to survive. The fact that the shortages are well documented in mainstream media makes this easier for us."

"Due to the shortages at the retailers, more consumers have been coming to the market to get produce, but it is also available at local greengrocers and daily street markets.

Produce available for cheap
Behind the current shortage is a bigger story - and even behind that bigger story, there's more. According to Paul, produce has been too cheap for too long. "I'm a 5th generation trader, and products like radicchio from Italy are the same price now as they were 50 years ago." 

"At the market, prices fluctuate just like at other markets, and we have shortages of different products every week. That's the fresh produce business. The difference this time is that it is well documented in the mainstream media. This could be what forces change in the industry, and it is well known that supermarkets sell produce for a lot less than they pay for it. Maybe it will change how people buy their fresh produce. In other parts of the world, people buy fresh produce at local markets and roadside stands. They buy on smell and taste, not how it looks."

"Although Brexit did make it a lot more difficult and expensive to get produce into the country, it is not to blame this time," Paul concludes, and other members from the produce industry agree.

Mike Parr, with PML (Perishable Movements Ltd), is currently in Dubai at the Gulfood exhibition. The message he repeatedly hears on the ground is that producers are simply not interested in shipping fresh produce to the UK because of the unacceptable cost of transportation, coupled with the unprecedented level of paperwork and well-documented extensive delays associated with imported goods. "Excessive handling charges, combined with the lengthy delays, are crippling our business. There are cases where drivers have been left waiting up to 26 hours. Not only is this a huge cost to the company, but it also represents the need to employ three different shifts due to the requirement to adhere to the strict driver hour regulations", he continues. "The punishing fees at Heathrow – 'the most valuable port to global Britain' is causing some of our most important customers to consider sending produce by sea since it is no longer viable to absorb the sky-high airport handling costs. The current rates make it more cost-effective to fly produce into Liege and bring it into the country via road than it is to use the air freight service to Heathrow. "If the government wishes to maintain the transfer of fresh fruit and vegetables into the UK via air and road – the most viable option given the perishable nature of the consignment, a cap on charges made for handling fresh produce should be considered as a priority. Only then will consumers be able to access – and afford to pay - for the foods that are so pivotal to a healthy diet. And only then will the industry stand any chance of survival", he concludes.  

What will happen?
Dutch and UK unlit cultivation is expected to start producing again in a few weeks, and also, the weather in Spain is better, so there will be a more normal situation soon – but for now, prices are very high for all produce on the market. It seems to be a struggle of the longest: UK retail versus the high produce prices.