UK retailers urge restraint as border closure risks fresh vegetables shortage

UK supermarkets warned on Monday that supplies of fresh produce such as salad, cauliflowers and broccoli could run low in the coming days if border delays continued, but urged shoppers to avoid panic buying before Christmas. Retailers including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks and Spencer said that they were well-stocked ahead of Christmas. But Sainsbury’s added that “if nothing changes, we will start to see some gaps in some stores 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”.

Tesco said that there was “plenty of food for Christmas available in stores and [we] would encourage all customers to shop as normal”. But if “the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week”, it added. Other supermarket executives confirmed that shortages of these perishable products would be industry wide after France imposed a ban of at least 48 hours on drivers from Britain from Monday.

This has also meant that hauliers have been reluctant to travel over from France given the risk of being trapped in the UK.  “This is an industry wide issue,” said one supermarket executive. “The products that will be affected like salad are the same for all of us.” 

However, retailers sought to reassure the public that the majority of a traditional Christmas lunch was sourced in the UK, from root vegetables such as potatoes and parsnips from Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire to Brussels sprouts from Lincolnshire and turkey from Norfolk. Supermarkets also said that they were in talks with suppliers to find alternatives where necessary, with some hauliers diverting to other ports.

This also includes bringing in some produce directly from Spain and increasing stock from Holland. Sainsbury’s said that it was sourcing “everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for products sourced from Europe”. Tesco said: “We’ve been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores.”

“Few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. “This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run-up to Christmas.” Supermarkets have called on the government for fast track “green lanes” for all fresh produce to ease the congestion for perishable products. 

Retailers told shoppers that there was no need to panic buy products, but there were some signs of stockpiling on Monday.  However, retailers said that shoppers stuck at home under Tier 4, in London and the south-east, had also needed to buy supplies, which added to the surge in demand, and it was difficult to separate out any panic buying on what would anyway be one of the busiest shopping days of the year before Christmas. “Shelves would naturally be quite difficult to keep fully stocked today,” one retail executive said.

Mr Opie said that retailers “have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems”, but added: “Any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends.”

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