Saturday 19 August 2017

Supermarkets forced to ration lettuce sales due to bad weather

Supermarkets in Ireland and the UK affected

A sign displayed in a SuperValu in Dublin
A sign displayed in a SuperValu in Dublin

Nina Massey and Ryan Wilkinson

Consumers have been dealt a fresh blow by European vegetable shortages as lettuce became the latest staple to fall victim to the "crisis".

Supermarkets have rationed the number of lettuces each customer can purchase in stores and iceberg, sweet gem and romaine varieties have been taken off sale completely by some online.

An extreme mix of drought followed by flooding and freezing conditions has severely affected growers in southern Spain, while poor conditions have also hit farmers in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Experts have warned that if the weather does not improve in the coming weeks the problem may continue until April, with customers hit by price rises.

The lettuce shortage follows similar reductions in the supply of courgettes, while salad peppers, broccoli and cabbage supplies are also under pressure.

Concerned healthy eaters have been sharing pictures of bare supermarket shelves with the hashtags #lettucecrisis and #courgettecrisis, while complaining that prices have nearly tripled in recent weeks.

The issue is affecting supermarkets in both Ireland and the UK.

SuperValu in Dublin city centre's Talbot Street are displaying signs apologising to customers for any inconvenience.

London retail analyst Rob Gregory posted a photo on Twitter of empty boxes in a Tesco and a sign that read: "Due to continued weather problems in Spain, there is a shortage on Iceberg and other varied lettuce products.

"To protect the availability for all customers, we are limiting bulk purchases to three per person."

He tweeted: "My local Tesco also affected by the lettuce and salad rationing. Not much there to ration though!"

A Tesco spokesman said they were "experiencing some availability issues" due to the bad weather in Spain

"[We] are working with our suppliers to resolve them as quickly as possible," he said.

Spain normally supplies half the vegetables on the European market during the winter months.

Supermarkets have been forced to look as far afield as the US west coast to meet demand.

A spokesman for Asda said it was doing everything it could to support its growers and bring them back to full supply as soon as possible.

Apologising for any potential short-term shortage, he explained: "Contrary to popular belief it seems the rain in Spain doesn't fall mainly on the plain and a run of unusually bad weather has resulted in availability issues on a small number of salad items and vegetables such as courgettes and aubergines."

Coos Hessing, of Hessing Super Fresh, said the situation for lettuce was "particularly severe".

"There have simply been too many cold days, and what's most bizarre about this situation is that it has hit all of south-eastern Europe.

"We had seen this before, but you'd need to go back to 15 years ago," the buyer told industry site Fresh Plaza.

Consumers may see lettuces around two-thirds smaller than usual on sale, while buyers have been looking to the USA and Egypt in order to keep supplies from drying up, Mr Hessing said.

Fepex, Spain's largest growers' association, said the extreme conditions amounted to a "force majeure" and the availability of outdoor-grown vegetables will depend on conditions improving in the coming weeks.

"It is a situation Fepex envisages remaining until at least early April for leafy vegetables grown in the open air, like lettuces, endives and spinach, and their availability will depend on weather in February and March."

Government response

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was keeping a watch on what was happening.

"Clearly, there is a situation with bad weather on the continent affecting some vegetable crops.

"Clearly, supermarkets are working hard to rectify any supply chain problems.

"They are confident that will be resolved swiftly, but the relevant department, Defra, is monitoring the situation," he told a regular Westminster briefing.

Asked how Brexit would impact on such situations, he said: "The rural industry of the United Kingdom will be an area that will come back under our control once we have left the European Union."

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