Fruit and vegetable shortages could last up to a month
Shortages of some fruit and vegetables will be a temporary issue that should be resolved in two to four weeks, according to the Environment Secretary.
Therese Coffey also told MPs a "lot of people would be eating turnips right now" under a seasonal food model - rather than thinking about lettuce, tomatoes and similar produce - although she accepted consumers want a "year-round choice".
A shortage of tomatoes in UK supermarkets has widened to other fruit and vegetables due to a combination of bad weather and transport problems in Africa and Europe.
Retailers such as Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Morrisons have imposed buying limits on certain produce to cope with a shortage.
Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons on Thursday, Ms Coffey said: "I am led to believe by my officials, after discussion with industry and retailers, we anticipate the situation will last about another two to four weeks.
"It is important that we try and make sure that we get alternative sourcing options. That is why the department has already been in discussion with the retailers.
"It is why there will be further discussions led by ministers as well, so that we can try and get over this and try and avoid similar situations in the future.
"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."
In response to a later question, Ms Coffey said: "I'm hoping that this will be a temporary issue."
The British Tomato Growers Association (BTGA) said shortages are mainly down to a lack of imports but the local growing season is due to begin soon.
“We expect significant volumes of British tomatoes on shelves by the end of March and into April 2023,” the association said.
“The British tomato season runs from the end of March until November each year.”
BRB, busy growing the 2023 crop of delicious British toms. Dropping in supermarkets at the end of March. Good things come to those who wait.
— BritishTomatoGrowers (@Britishtomatoes) February 22, 2023
Tesco and Aldi are limiting customers to three of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as a precautionary measure, while Asda is also limiting customers on lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries, and Morrisons has set a limit of two items per customer across tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.
Retailers believe the problems stem from poor yields on the continent and north Africa, and that supplies will improve in the coming days or weeks.
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 the harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.
🥒Shortages of fruit and veg?🍅
At the moment poor weather conditions in Spain and Morocco have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers, but rest assured retailers are doing all they can to sort it!
— The British Retail Consortium (@the_brc) February 21, 2023
“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.
“In the meantime, some stores are introducing temporary limits on the number of products customers can buy to ensure availability for everyone.”
However local tomato grower APS Group said it was forced to leave multiple glasshouses empty last year for the first time in the business’s 80-year history.
Philip Pearson, development director at the UK’s largest tomato producer, told The Guardian: “We did say, as an industry, last year: ‘If you don’t support us through the winter you will have empty shelves. Government didn’t listen, our customers didn’t listen, nobody listened.
“I don’t want to sound ‘I told you so’, as that doesn’t help anybody, but we are where we were worried we would end up.”
Mr Pearson said the combination of soaring energy bills to provide artificial light to help the plants grow, especially during the winter, combined with associated surges in the price of fertiliser and the cost of packaging, prompted many British producers and their European counterparts to plant fewer crops this winter.
We couldn’t recover the costs at the retail level, because the retailers couldn’t recover it from the consumer, because the consumer was under pressure as well because of the cost-of-living crisis
The company decided it could not afford to run the LED lights required to grow a winter tomato crop, which is traditionally sown in August and harvested from Christmas until July.
Mr Pearson said: “We couldn’t recover the costs at the retail level, because the retailers couldn’t recover it from the consumer, because the consumer was under pressure as well because of the cost-of-living crisis.”
About 160 tomato varieties – from cherry to beefsteak – are grown by APS at six UK sites stretching from Middlesbrough to the Isle of Wight, producing an estimated 650 million tomatoes each year.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called on the Government to support intensive users, such as tomato and salad growers, with energy bills.
NFU president Minette Batters criticised how botanical gardens receive support with energy bills for their glasshouses but food producers with greenhouses do not.
Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said ministers could have done more to support farmers with access to "the energy-intensive support scheme", and could have increased quotas on labour to help with workforce shortages.
The Labour politician said: “There is genuine public concern about the availability of food, and as the secretary responsible for our food security - and let’s bear in mind food security is national security - this is absolutely mission-critical.”
Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne ridiculed suggestions that Brexit was responsible for the shortages.
Sir Desmond 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?"
Fellow Tory Selaine Saxby (North Devon) suggested seasonal eating would solve the issue.
She said: "The supermarkets are still importing far too many products for us and... actually we should be eating more seasonally and supporting our own British farmers.
"And if we were actually to move to a seasonal line of eating, many of these problems would be avoided... there are great food products available from local farmers at this time."
Ms Coffey replied: "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 aspects of 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 try to satisfy."
Liberal Democrat Wera Hobhouse (Bath) said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should call an emergency Cobra meeting to respond to the "national emergency".