3 Tomatoes at a Time: Why U.K. Supermarkets Are Limiting Vegetables

LONDON — Five leading supermarket chains in Britain have limited the number of some vegetables that customers can buy, deepening the pressure on policymakers to confront the shrinking supply of salad ingredients.

Last weekend, Lidl, the German discount supermarket chain, said it was limiting the sale of cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes to three per customer, joining four other chains — Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Aldi — that have capped the sales of some produce. Lidl said there was good availability in its stores and that the measures were precautionary.

Together, the five chains represent about two-thirds of the market share of grocery stores in Britain.

So, where have all of the tomatoes gone?

Frosty temperatures in Spain, the primary supplier of British vegetables, have damaged crops, particularly in the Spanish province of Almería, where tomato sales were down 22 percent in the first two weeks of February, compared to a year ago, according to Fepex, an organization representing Spanish producers and exporters of fruits and vegetables. Cucumber sales fell 21 percent and pepper and eggplant sales fell 25 percent, the organization said.

Have other European countries been affected?

Not as much.

Other European countries, including the Netherlands, that also rely on imported produce during the winter have seen some supply constraints, but not to the same extent as Britain. Several experts attributed the shortage in Britain to supermarkets not having invested enough in local production.

Furthermore, supermarkets in other European countries have been more willing to pay higher prices for vegetables in short supply, earning them preferential treatment from suppliers, while British supermarkets have been more focused on keeping prices low for consumers, said Sue Pritchard, the chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

“It has pushed us right down to the bottom of the queue when those difficult export choices are being made,” Ms. Pritchard said. The economics for British growers are even less favorable this year because higher energy prices have made heating greenhouses prohibitively expensive, she said.

In the Netherlands, several grocery chains said on Tuesday that stock was returning to normal levels, according to Marc Wever, a spokesman for the Central Bureau for Food Retail, a trade association representing Dutch supermarkets.

“There were and are hardly any major shortages here and certainly no caps on fruits and vegetables, as we see in other countries, for example,” he said.

Does this have anything to do with Brexit?

Not really. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2020 has led to some higher costs, but is not to blame for the shortages, Spain’s agriculture minister, Luis Planas, told The Financial Times. Shortages of vegetables, including zucchinis, eggplants, lettuce and celery, also occurred in Britain before it left the bloc. A spell of bad weather in Spain in 2017 led British newspapers to refer to the period as a “courgette crisis.”

Tom Holder, a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, a trade association, said Brexit had not exacerbated supply shortages, since British checks on food and fresh products imported from the European Union had not yet come into effect.

Britain may see Brexit-related issues in the summer, however, if the country continues to struggle to find seasonal workers to help harvest produce, he said. In a typical year, Britain imports about 95 percent of its tomatoes in March from abroad, compared with 40 percent in June, according to the British Retail Consortium.

While Brexit has created additional costs and administrative work for Spanish exporters to Britain, the value of Spanish exports to Britain has grown since Britain left the European Union.

How long will the limits on purchases last?

The restrictions will likely last for just a few weeks, according to the British Retail Consortium. Fepex, the Spanish organization representing producers, said that an increase in temperatures in the next few weeks could improve the situation.

Why don’t British supermarkets source more produce locally?

Joanna Blythman, the author of “Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets,” said that British supermarkets have not supported local producers, opting instead for less expensive suppliers abroad, whereas grocery stores in other European countries are more committed to buying local and regional products.

“What we’re reaping here is the results of letting the supermarkets be too powerful to the detriment of producers in this country, and it’s putting our food security at risk,” she said.

Ed Davey, an expert on global food policy for the World Resources Institute, a research organization, attributed the problem not just to the weather, but to British grocers’ overreliance on imported fruit and vegetables. He said British supermarkets, which are highly competitive, had relied on “just in time” delivery of fruits and vegetables from overseas without doing enough to support local farmers.

“For too long, Britain has had an unhealthy national food system, and we haven’t done enough to make healthy, fresh, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables available at affordable prices for the people of the country,” he said.

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