January is a month when Britons turn to salads after the Christmas blowout. But now, on top of the disruption caused by Brexit and Covid, even the weather is conspiring against dieters by causing shortages in UK supermarkets.
The supply of salad staples such as lettuce and tomatoes has been hit by Storm Filomena, the worst snowstorm to hit Spain in 50 years. It blanketed Madrid and the surrounding area and sent temperatures plummeting to record lows in Almería and Granada, two important vegetable growing regions.
The bad weather has piled extra pressure on UK food retailers and suppliers at a time when they are navigating complex new post-Brexit border controls as well as coronavirus restrictions.
Tesco has reported some Brexit-related “teething problems” at the main Channel crossing, through which a tenth of the food consumed in the UK is transported. However, a shortage of some salad lines in its stores is down to the recent bad weather in Spain.
In January, with British produce out of season, 90% of the lettuce we eat is imported. That figure is even higher – 95% – for tomatoes and soft fruit, with Spain the primary European producer.
Four years ago, the UK was gripped by a “courgette crisis” after Spanish farmers in Murcia and Valencia were badly affected by flooding, frost and snow. The disruption, which also affected tomato, lettuce and aubergine crops, resulted in soaring prices.
“When it’s cold the crop effectively stops growing, so you are seeing smaller crops across Spain,” one major supermarket supplier told the Guardian. “It is a difficult time of year anyway, and then you have got to layer on Covid and Brexit.”
The situation is exacerbated by the closure of restaurants and cafes, which means a record amount of food is being funnelled through supermarkets. “Demand is up again for supermarket fresh produce because food service, which has a different supply chain, is closed,” the supplier said. “So we are trying to meet increased demand against a backdrop of supply chain challenges.”
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Fepex, Spain’s fresh produce export association, said the cold weather would reduce crop yields in Almería and Granada, meaning lower volumes of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, eggplant and peppers. January is one of the important months of the year, when Spanish farmers export between 1.2m and 1.3m tonnes of fruit and vegetables.
The intense cold could have caused irreparable damage, Fepex said in update on its website. “In the field, farmers do not have enough kilos to collect, and not enough product enters the warehouses to supply all orders.” A fall in production usually pushes up prices but there may not be enough supply to satisfy even existing commercial agreements.
However, growers in other Spanish regions have fared better, said Luke King, the commercial director at organic vegetable box company Riverford, which sources from farmers in Murcia and Andalusia.
“Don’t get me wrong, the weather has been horrible, it’s been cold, it’s been wet … which is not good growing conditions and logistics can get compromised but we’ve not had any issues.”