Greengrocer shares ‘real story’ behind tomato shortage as he says ‘supermarkets don’t want to pay’

A greengrocer has ‘lifted the lid’ on the UK’s current tomato shortage, claiming supermarkets ‘don’t want to pay’. Simon Conley of Fountain Fresh, which is based in New Smithfield Market, Manchester, revealed the ‘real story’ with one of our sister publications, Manchester Evening News (MEN).

Despite the so-called shortages appearing in supermarkets across the country, Simon says that in just one morning last week on Thursday (March 2), he sold eight pallets of tomatoes – with 50 boxes of tomatoes on each pallet – totalling to about £18,000. The Manchester arm of a large Spanish import company was packing up having started his day at midnight.

Despite the eight pallets already sold, he had a couple left for the following day, with another delivery in transit – yet the shelves in supermarkets are bare. Meanwhile, New Smithfield is laden with tomatoes, thousands upon thousands of them, boxes piled high in every wholesaler you care to wander past, says MEN reporter Ben Arnold.

Read More: Aldi and Tesco become latest supermarkets to ration fresh fruit and veg

So what is causing this apparent storage in supermarkets? Poor harvests in Spain and Morocco have been a very real issue. The two locations are both where the majority of the UK’s tomatoes come from.

However, it’s not why the supermarkets don’t have any in stock, Simon claims. In wake of poor harvests in Spain and Morocco, prices rose. But, the major supermarkets, that have been hammering down prices paid to suppliers for decades, reportedly hesitated to pay the higher prices.

As a result, they’ve claimed that it’s the poor harvests to blame (which many people have likely already seen via photos on social media) – but the Simon says the real issue is that they don’t want to pay the prices.

A tweet this week from Tatws Trading, a greengrocer in Llandudno, Wales, laid it out rather succinctly. “Surely the #Supermarket buyers bosses etc must be embarrassed with empty shelves when us little #Independents have got produce literally coming from everywhere. Love it #shoplocal.”

Speaking to MEN reporter Ben, Simon said: “The problem is that your supermarkets have contracts, so if you’re a supplier, and you’re going to get more money from somewhere else, where are you going to send them?”

“Tomatoes at the minute are making £15 for five kilos. There is a shortage, don’t get me wrong, and [exporters] are now just sending more into Europe since Brexit. But supermarkets just don’t want to pay [higher prices]. So the local shops, they’re loving it. They’re saying it’s like lockdown all over again.”

Simon Conley of Fountain Fresh at New Smithfield Market has an abundance of tomatoes
Simon Conley of Fountain Fresh at New Smithfield Market has an abundance of tomatoes

He also claims it’s far from the worst situation he’s ever seen. Looking at the supermarket shelves, however, this is the worst case of shortages consumers have seen since the truly exceptional case of the pandemic. Many suppliers believe that supermarkets have been selling food too cheaply for too long in the constant battle to undercut each other and seize an increased market share.

If you combine poor harvests caused by climate change, increasing haulage costs caused by Brexit, insanely inflated energy costs for growers caused by the war in Ukraine, a lack of foreign workers to pick vegetables in this country and fill the shortfall (again caused by Brexit visa issues) and a host of other smaller contributing factors and you get the situation that we’re all facing right now.

Bob Amato runs Amato Food Products on the Piccadilly trading estate, a wholesaler for restaurants and catering businesses, as well as selling to the public. The tomato issue is, of course, affecting canned produce too, which is his area of granular expertise.

“Tomatoes are in short supply, they are out there, but the prices have gone up. The supermarkets in this country, for their own reasons, have said ‘we’re not going to pay that price’,” he told me this week. “So the supermarkets aren’t buying, but other people are, so that’s why when you go to your local greengrocers, they’ve got them. They’re just more expensive. But because of Brexit, importing fresh product into this country has become increasingly difficult.”

“About a year ago, in October 2021, contracts were signed to cover us regarding tomatoes up until Aug 2022, at around £12 per case, so that’s six 3kg tins per case,” he went on. “In March 2022, as product became short due to a poor crop in August of 2021, the price shot up to £16 per case.

“We are now being quoted for March 2023 £19 to £20 per case. I’ve never seen these prices before.” Bob has been in the business for more than 30 years, allot like Mike Noone who claims he saw the issues coming from quite a while ago.

He said: “The majority of winter vegetables, tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, come from the south of Spain, in Murcia. You can drive for 50 miles, and it’s all under polythene,” he says. It’s the unseasonably warm winter followed by the shock of a cold snap that has caused the crops in what’s known as ‘Europe’s orchard’ to be adversely affected.

“Supermarket contract prices are set out per quarter. The whole of this quarter will have its prices fixed. If you’re contracted to produce 100,000 cases of tomatoes and you only produce 50,000, supermarkets are so hard on price, so hard. If you can’t supply what has been agreed, there are clauses in the contracts to say that suppliers have to pay what the supermarkets have lost.”

“I don’t know for sure whether this is happening now. But I do know that these contracts are written. The independent people, and the wholesale market, like we were, there’s no shortage if you’re prepared to pay for it. The rules of supply and demand are never more apparent than they are now.

“The nub of the point is that a), we’ve had freakish weather, and b) the supermarkets are not keen on breaking their contracts.”

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey had a different approach to the vegetable shortage, claiming we should all just eat turnips and stop blaming Brexit. She was promptly shouted down as people disagreed with the notion of eating vegetables seasonally. Mike somewhat agrees saying: “This is where we’re at. Thérèse Coffey got ripped apart, but she’s got a point. She just didn’t sell it very well.

“If you go back 50 years, every kid in a council house was eating carrot and swede, mashed up with potatoes. And if you were lucky, with a bit of butter in it. Those kids now are better off, so they can afford to go out to eat, or have tenderstem broccoli that’s flown in.”

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which speaks on behalf of the UK’s supermarkets, told the Manchester Evening News: “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and Northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.

“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.

“In the meantime, some stores are introducing temporary limits on the number of products customers can buy to ensure availability for everyone. Retailers have long-established relationships with the farmers in the UK and beyond, and they understand they need to pay a sustainable price for these goods.

“During winter, retailers source much of their summer produce, like tomatoes and lettuces, from countries like Spain and Morocco, where the good weather allows them to grow all year round without the added cost of heating greenhouses. This, in turn, allows supermarkets to offer their customers the best value for money at a time when the cost of living has risen sharply.”

As it stands, local produce sellers will carry on making a profit whilst supermarkets slowly replenish their stock routes. However, with all the issues mentioned, there’s a fine chance that it won’t be the last time that ‘bare-shelves’ hits the headlines.

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