By Lottie Kilraine, Multimedia Producer
An initial shortage of tomatoes affecting UK supermarkets has since widened to other fruit and vegetables due to a combination of problems.
Photos began flooding social media this week showing empty fresh produce aisles with rising energy prices, supply chain issues, the weather, the climate crisis and Brexit all being blamed.
In response to the shortages, many big-name supermarkets have started imposing limits on how many items customers can purchase.
On Monday, food minister Mark Spencer summoned supermarket chiefs to explain “what they are doing to get shelves stocked again” amid shortages.
Which supermarkets are limiting produce?
Lidl is the latest supermarket to introduce limits on sales of certain fruit and vegetables due to shortages of fresh produce.
The company is putting limits of three per customer on sales of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, due to "a recent increase in demand".
Tesco said it was working hard with its suppliers to ensure a good supply of vegetables for customers in light of temporary supply challenges on some lines due to adverse weather conditions abroad.
An Aldi spokeswoman said: “We are limiting purchases of peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes to three units per person to ensure that as many customers as possible can buy what they need.”
Other supermarkets are understood to be considering similar temporary measures.
Which fruit and vegetables are affected by the shortages?
The problem started with tomatoes but has since widened to peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
Tesco, Aldi and Lidl have introduced limits of three per customer on sales of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
Asda has introduced a customer limit of three on tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
Meanwhile, Morrisons has set a limit of two items per customer across tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.
Sainsbury's, Co-op, M&S and Waitrose have not yet announced any limits.
Why are we seeing empty shelves in supermarkets?
Rising energy costs
Salad items in particular appear to be in short supply, with shoppers finding it difficult to track down tomatoes and cucumbers - a situation predicted by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in December when it warned the UK was "sleepwalking" into a food supply crisis.
Faced with soaring energy bills - produce such as cucumbers and peppers are grown in heated greenhouses in winter in the UK - meant British suppliers were asking supermarkets for more money to cover their rising costs.
British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward said cucumber and tomatoes are "very energy dependent for production at this time of year".
He added that suppliers - both in the UK and across northern Europe - simply did not have the confidence to plant last year amid huge costs "they were not sure they would recoup."
Bad weather overseas
Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted the harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.
In the winter months the UK imports around 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of its lettuces, most of it from Spain and north Africa.
However growers and suppliers in Morocco have had to contend with cold temperatures, heavy rain and flooding which has affected the volume of fruit reaching Britain.
Supplies from Britain’s other major winter source, Spain, have also been badly affected by weather.
Despite these problems, the wider EU is not facing any shortages, Ksenija Simovic senior policy advisor at the United Voice of Farmers and Agri-cooperatives in the EU, told ITV News.
Supply chain problems
Lea Valley Growers Association (LVGA) secretary Lee Stiles said there have been issues with transporting goods to the UK, including disruption to a ferry that takes produce from Morocco to mainland Spain, where it then starts a four-day road trip to the UK.
Ferries between mainland Spain and Morocco were disrupted by cancellations due to bad weather between February 9 and 12.
The three-day delay led to long tailbacks of goods crossing from the Port of Tangier in Morocco to the Port of Algeciras in Spain.
The UK also gets some produce at this time of year from domestic growers and the Netherlands, but producers in both countries have reported cutting back on their use of greenhouses because of high energy prices.
How has the government responded?
Food minister Mark Spencer said: “The current situation – caused by recent poor weather in North Africa – shows how dependent we can be on certain trade routes for some types of food.
“I know families expect the fresh produce they need to be on the shelves when they go in for their weekly shop.
"That is why I am calling in supermarket chiefs to find out what they are doing to get shelves stocked again and to outline how we can avoid a repeat of this.
“As we do our shopping, we should all give our thanks to the UK’s tens of thousands of farmers and food producers for keeping us fed throughout the year and particularly showing their mettle keeping the nation going during the pandemic.”
Last week, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told farmers “we can’t control the weather in Spain” when confronted with the news that supermarkets were limiting sales of fruit and vegetables.
In her speech to delegates at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham, Ms Coffey stressed the need for biosecurity but left the conference hall before discussing the supermarket shortages.
Ms Coffey also recommended that British consumers should eat more turnips instead of imported food.
How long will it last?
The British Retail Consortium said disruption was expected to last a few weeks.
Retailers have stressed that buying limits are temporary until supplies improve in the coming days or weeks, helped by the UK moving into its growing season.
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