Britain’s biggest supermarket has begun rationing fresh fruit and vegetables as a row erupted over shortages that have left the shelves bare.
Tesco has followed Aldi, Asda and Morrisons in introducing limits on items customers can buy.
A shortage of tomatoes in supermarkets has widened to other fruits and vegetables due to a combination of bad weather and transport problems in Africa and Europe.
But farmers and retailers have pointed the finger at Brexit, with former Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King saying shops had been hurt by the decision to leave the European Union. He said north Kent previously had the largest greenhouses in Europe “but it’s a sector that’s been hurt horribly by Brexit.”
He also said supermarkets had suffered from the government’s decision to exclude the industry from its energy support scheme.
Andrew Opie, head of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents shops, said the shortages were likely to last for weeks.
In winter, the UK imports around 95 percent of its tomatoes and 90 percent of its lettuces, mostly from Spain and North Africa. Growers and suppliers in Morocco have faced cold weather, heavy rain, flooding and canceled ferries in the past four weeks – all of which have reduced the amount of fruit and vegetables reaching Britain.
Shoppers in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Poland and Italy have highlighted greengrocery stores near them with plentiful supplies, particularly of tomatoes.
In Britain, consumers have reported finding fruit and veg aisles stripped bare or low in goods, prompting concerns over Britain’s future food security.
Asda said on Tuesday it was limiting shoppers to three items each on eight fresh produce lines, including broccoli, cauliflower, raspberries and lettuces. Morrisons put a limit of two per shopper on packs of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.
Tesco has followed suit, saying its customers are not allowed to buy more than three each of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
Labor accused the government of plunging the UK into a food security crisis by presiding over a string of failures in food systems.
Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon blamed ministers for rocketing producer energy costs; “botched trade deals that undermine standards”; allowing “avian flu to wreak chaos on our poultry sector” and for “leaving farmers in limbo” by “failing to deliver” promised environmental land management schemes – paying landowners to use land more sustainably.
Farmers booed environment secretary Therese Coffey when she denied that market failure was hitting Britain’s supply chain, refusing to take responsibility. “You can’t control the weather in Spain,” she said.
But National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said the government should make sure Britain grew more of its own food.
The NFU and animal-welfare organizations including the RSPCA have repeatedly warned that signing trade deals with other non-EU countries would allow food produced to much lower standards than in the UK, undercutting British farmers.
Tim Farron MP, the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesperson, said: “The secretary of state for farming denying any problems when supermarkets are limiting tomatoes and peppers shows that she is out of touch with British farmers and consumers.”
Save British Farming blamed Brexit and the “disastrous” Tory government for the shortages, branding as “absolute nonsense” the idea of only Spanish weather being the cause.
“The reason that we have food shortages in Britain and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the EU – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply,” said the organization’s chair, Liz Webster, a Liberal Democrat.
UK growers say that because of higher electricity prices, they planted produce later this year to reduce their energy consumption in greenhouses.
They also blame a combination of rising transportation costs following fuel price hikes and inflation pushing up prices for seeds, fertilizer and feed. Costs of checking seeds entering the UK for viruses have also risen.
Tesco said it was working hard with its suppliers to ensure a good supply of vegetables in the light of temporary supply challenges on some lines due to adverse weather abroad.
Ms Batters said UK production of tomatoes and cucumbers was expected to drop to its lowest levels since records began in 1985.
She told the government the “clock is ticking” to act on the post-Brexit subsidy scheme and get inflation under control so that farmers could produce more reliably.
Ms Coffey, in a speech to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham, stressed the need for biosecurity but left the conference hall before discussing the supermarket shortages.
Mr Opie said: “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.”
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said on Tuesday that “food security is national security” and that his party would commit to “buying, making and selling more in Britain”.
The government said it understood “public concerns” over the supply of fresh vegetables, but that the UK had a “highly resilient food supply chain and is well equipped to deal with disruption”.
Asked whether Brexit was having an impact on the shortages, a spokesperson told the BBC: “We remain in close contact with suppliers, who are clear that current issues relating to the availability of certain fruits and vegetables were predominantly caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa where they are produced.”