UK supermarkets predict shortage of lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruit

Supermarkets and wholesalers are warning shoppers of shortages of lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruit around Christmas after France banned hauliers carrying freight across the Channel in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus strain.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, held an emergency call with supermarket executives on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation as retailers expressed concerns that the lorry ban could combine with Brexit disruption to cause serious difficulties for shops.

Retailers said the ingredients for a traditional Christmas lunch, such as Turkey, carrots, peas, potatoes, parsnips and brussels sprouts were mostly produced in the UK and available to buy, but some shelves could soon be empty of some fresh produce imported from Europe.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” said a Sainsbury’s spokesperson.

“We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.”

Sainsbury’s added that it was “sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe”.

Tesco encouraged customers to “shop as normal” as it had plenty of food up to 25 December.

A spokesperson said: “We don’t expect any problems with availability for Christmas, but if the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a limited number of fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit, later this week.”

Other big supermarkets and suppliers said they were also well-stocked with Christmas favourites but that supplies close to and after 25 December could be more difficult. One said the situation was “very unclear and slightly outside of our hands”.

Other crops that could be affected by the French move include tomatoes, courgettes, sweet peppers, flowers and tropical fruits, some of which are flown into mainland Europe and then driven via France to the UK.

At least one supermarket chain and some wholesalers are considering flying in salads and other items if the problems persist but high costs and low availability of air freight capacity are likely to mean only a small amount of goods could be moved in this way. Other options being explored include increasing direct shipments from Holland and Spain, although capacity on ferries from those countries is limited.

Food industry trade bodies called on the government to resolve the situation with France as swiftly as possible.

About 3,000 lorry loads of vegetables, flowers and plants enter the UK every day from Europe. Small shops, local markets, restaurants and catering firms that source from wholesalers, who supply 40% of the fruit and vegetables we eat, are likely to be affected within days.

Hospitals and care homes could be among those first hit, according to the Fresh Produce Consortium trade body, as many are reliant on wholesale suppliers getting daily deliveries from the continent.

Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, said: “At some wholesale markets a huge number of vehicles didn’t arrive today. It is critical the government resolves this situation urgently so we can get back on track.”

He was “astounded the government failed to understand the risk before making the announcement [on Sunday]” and that measures – such as testing facilities for returning drivers – should have been taken to offset neighbouring countries’ concerns about a new strain of the coronavirus in the UK.

Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation trade body, said: “Yesterday’s suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies – and exports of UK food and drink. Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned. The government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban.”