Vegetable prices are soaring in the wake of unusually bad weather in Spain, Italy and across Europe.
UK suppliers are struggling to source produce, cope with daily escalating prices exacerbated by a weak pound and face significant shortages for the weeks ahead.
The race is on to find supplies of several key categories including aubergines, courgettes, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers, leafy salad, spinach, squash and more, as the supply situation across much of Europe is worse than originally anticipated.
Courgettes are frozen in the ground in the Almeria region, there has been unusual snowfall in La Manga, Murcia, and heavy rainfall and flooding in other Spanish growing regions.
An array of vegetable crops from southern Spain were battered by storms in the run up to Christmas, and now snow, freezing temperatures and poor light levels are making it virtually impossible for growers to harvest crops.
This is all leading to significant shortages and high prices in European and UK markets.
JEM Fruits UK sales director, Ricky Benn, tells PBUK, how the company is looking to Poland, Greece, and South Africa to plug the gaps in supply.
“We spoke to contacts in Spain earlier today and they basically can’t get anything out. The situation has gone from bad to worse. The heads of broccoli and cauliflower are not making the right sizes and unfortunately we have to go elsewhere – we’re looking at sourcing from Poland, but they have bad weather there as well,” he says.
“We are looking all over the place and bringing in butternut squash from South Africa because the produce in Portugal and Spain has been ruined. And, we are trying to bring in cucumbers from Greece as well.
“We don’t tend to source so much from Italy because they are always very expensive anyway.
We’ve heard of others flying in lettuce and other salad produce from the U.S., but that’s really expensive.”
Benn explains how the normal price for broccoli is around £4 to £5 for five kilos – it’s now costing £14 to £15.
“Broccoli has gone up threefold and there’s nothing we can do about it, and it doesn’t help with the value of the pound against the dollar and euro. We’re looking at alternatives all of the time, but unfortunately because vegetable prices are going up daily now, it’s getting tougher and tougher.”
Andy Weir from Reynolds, suppliers of Spanish salad crops to the UK foodservice industry, tells PBUK how courgettes and lettuce are the most difficult products to maintain.
“Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, baby leaf, broccoli, cauliflowers and coriander are all short in the marketplace as well,” he says.
“Up to now our growers and suppliers have been able to protect our customers from shortages in the main, as well as the crazy levels of price inflation we are seeing. Frankly, if we didn’t have a contracted supply in place, things would be very different.
“The signs are that the situation is quite likely to worsen. The freezing temperatures in Spain are expected to improve a little over the next few days or so, but not enough to make a huge difference to crop growth. Rain is also predicted for several days, which will make harvesting difficult. With growers already harvesting early to meet demand, things will remain very tight for some time.”
Group managing director of Nationwide Produce PLC, Tim O’Malley, says crops planted in Spain just before Christmas have suffered the most.
“The whole of southern Spain has suffered from relatively cold temperatures and low light levels so product is simply not growing at its normal pace or has been wiped out by floods,” he tells PBUK.
“At this time of year the UK is heavily reliant on Spain for salad and vegetable supply. Just about every vegetable and salad crop from Spain is affected but in particular courgettes, Iceberg, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.”
Nationwide Produce has a grower group in Spain run by its office in El Ejido, Almeria. Workers discovered frozen courgettes earlier today (January 18).
“We will start to see shortages from planting gaps soon as product that was due to be planted just before Christmas has either not been planted or washed away. Shortages will last for another six to 10 weeks. Iceberg is being air-freighted in from the U.S. which is something that only happens in times of desperate shortage,” O’Malley adds.
Jackie Leonard & Sons Ltd managing director Justin Leonard tells Produce Business UK how unusual this weather pattern is and how high prices are expected for at least six to eight weeks.
“Normally you would get a price spike for a week or two, mother-nature repairs itself, but we’re looking at six, seven, eight weeks of this. Because in turn any plants that were washed away, no new plantings can take place because the ground is under water. The growers can’t physically get into the fields because of the amount of water,” he says.
“The last time something happened like this was back in 2013, we had a very bad winter. The rain started in autumn and it continued all the way through February and March, so there was almost no spring.
“You just have to get on with it. Try to diversify and sell other product lines. Some people in the UK are taking iceberg lettuce from the U.S. and there is a little bit of Moroccan produce coming in, but not nearly enough to supply the rest of us.”
Freshfel general delegate Philippe Binard describes this as “a lose-lose situation” for growers and consumers, caused by a combination of weather factors.
“There are a number of growers who have lost their crop or lost quality on their crop. At the end of the day, the consumer has to pay higher prices at this period of the year because there is a smaller availability of produce,” he says.
“There has been a combination of factors, severity of events that have made the situation more exceptional, given climatic conditions.”