Britain has held down salad prices, Europe hasn't, says minister

FILE PHOTO: People shop for groceries in south east London

LONDON (Reuters) - British food retailers have kept the prices of salad vegetables that have been in short supply "comparatively low" versus their European peers, food and farming minister Mark Spencer said on Thursday.

For a month or so Britons have grappled with a shortage of key salad staples, particularly tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, while shelves in Europe have been piled high with the fresh produce.

A hit to imports from disrupted harvests in north Africa due to unseasonable weather has been exacerbated by British farmers planting fewer crops under glass due to still high energy prices.

"Whilst recent unseasonable weather in Morocco has also created some temporary supply disruption to fruit and vegetables, domestic retailers have held prices comparatively low compared to the rest of Europe, where increased demand led to some cases of 300% rises in the price of some vegetables," Spencer told parliament.

Despite the relatively low prices mentioned by Spencer, official data published on Wednesday showed UK consumer price inflation rose to 10.4% in February, higher than a Eurozone average of 8.5%.

The Office for National Statistics said that an end to January drinks promotions in pubs and restaurants was the biggest factor behind the rise, but shortages of salad items also played a role. It said overall inflation for food and non-alcoholic drinks rose to 18.0%, the highest since 1977.

"A number of media outlets have reported that the recent shortage of some salad and vegetables have been the driver for the increase of food inflation in February, but this is not the case," said Spencer.

He said the inflation rate has been driven by several factors - higher utility prices and pressures on global supply chains that are being felt across Europe and beyond.

Spencer noted other categories had seen price increases over the past year greater than those seen in vegetables, highlighting oils and fats up 32.1% since February 2022 and milk, cheese and eggs up 30.8%.

"Commentators expect the rate of inflation, both across the economy and for food and drink, to be near its peak," Spencer added.

Market researcher Kantar will report UK grocery inflation data for March on Tuesday.

(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)