LONDON British supermarkets have taken to rationing shoppers to three iceberg lettuces per visit after bad weather hit growing conditions in Spain, leading to a shortage in supplies that is set to continue through to March.
Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury's have all imposed restrictions on bulk purchases after production in Spain was hit by crop damage from flooding late last year followed by unusually cold weather last month.
The limited supply of lettuces follows a continuing shortage of courgettes in Britain. Supplies of broccoli and aubergines have also been limited.
The shortages add to the problems for UK supermarkets who are already facing inflationary pressures as a result of the weaker pound since Britons voted to leave the European Union last year.
Vegetable production in the EU is at 60 percent of the normal level due to bad weather affecting producers right across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Spain, the Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruits, Vegetables, Flowers and Live Plants (FEPEX) said.
Exports from Spain, which accounts for around half of EU vegetable exports, have fallen by around 30 percent although this varies by crop.
"It has been a continental problem which has affected all the production in Europe", said José María Pozancos, FEPEX head.
"It will take two or three weeks to regain levels of production in greenhouses, where produce like courgettes are grown, and around six weeks for open-air production, like lettuces", he added.
Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket group, said it was experiencing "some availability issues" and was working with suppliers to resolve them as quickly as possible.
"To make sure customers don’t miss out, we are asking them to limit the number of iceberg lettuces they buy to three," said a spokesman.
Morrisons , Britain's fourth-biggest supermarket chain, has also limited customers to three heads of broccoli and three iceberg lettuces, despite good supplies.
"However, other businesses (such as cafes and restaurants) are experiencing shortages and we have seen some bulk buying in our stores. We have therefore had a cap on sales of broccoli and iceberg lettuce to ensure we maintain good supplies for our regular customers," he said.
A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's, Britain's second-largest supermarket group, said it was working with suppliers to maintain supply but customers would be prevented from making bulk purchases.
Britain's major supermarket chains tend to have long-term contracts with suppliers, providing some price stability.
In contrast smaller businesses are typically reliant on the free market. Seeing significant price rises in their normal supply chains they are trying to use supermarkets as wholesalers.
Asda, the British arm of Wal-Mart and the country's third biggest supermarket chain, said that it had availability issues on a small number of salad items and vegetables such as courgettes and aubergines.
"We’re doing everything we can to support our growers and get back up to full supply as quickly as possible," a spokesman said.
Discounters Aldi [ALDIEI.UL] and Lidl [LIDUK.UL] both said they were not experiencing significant availability issues and have no need to ration.
(Editing by David Goodman, Greg Mahlich)