The lettuce crisis may finally be turning a corner with one UK supplier predicting a return to stable supply towards the end of next month and into early April.
Although three months of the season have been lost, managing director of Bedfordshire Growers, Stephen Hedderly, who works with two Murcia-based growers to supply Sainsbury’s, is optimistic that Iceberg levels will get back on track soon.
Speaking to PBUK during Fruit Logistica in Berlin, Hedderly explains just how bad the winter challenges have been for his producers after a series of extreme weather conditions hit Spain in the run up the Christmas and into early 2017, devastating huge amounts of crops.
“Over this last weekend Murcia was 19-20 degrees and we are starting to see signs that things might be improving a little bit,” he says.
“The worry now though is that as we hit March we will see the result of where plantings were lost at Christmas, so again the forecast is that in March there will probably be gaps. But hopefully if we can get through that, by the end of March towards April, we might get somewhere near normality.”
Hedderly visited Murcia in early January to see the devastation first-hand.
“It was a really depressing trip. We went to view somewhere in the region of 100,000 heads of Romaine which they just had to bypass because it had all twisted. It was so sad because you have these growers who put their absolute heart and soul into producing this crop, and an act of nature over five days obliterates it.
“It’s not about the monetary side of things, it’s just desperately sad.”
Last week, we reported how UK retailers were rationing lettuce sales with Sainsbury’s closely monitoring supplies and urging customers to shop responsibly, while Morrisons limited sales of three broccoli and two Iceberg lettuce per customer and Tesco rationed shoppers to three Iceberg’s per visit.
However Hedderly adds how Sainsbury’s has been very supportive over the winter challenges, explaining how the retailer has people on the ground in Spain closely monitoring what has been happening since before Christmas.
“When you have a case like this with all of this rain followed by low temperatures and snow, Sainsbury’s know the situation every step of the way. Their people in Spain were out to see both of our growers last week so they can see the loses in the crop.
“When you have 60%-70% availability, you’ve got gaps on the shelf but that is something, to be honest, that is not abnormal to our industry.
“I can remember years ago when bananas went to 19 pence a pound and wholesale people from the outside world were going into stores and buying all of the stock. We were having conversations with Sainsbury’s at the end of December about making sure that it was actually true customers who were buying the product and I suppose that is what has been the key.”
The problems first started the week before Christmas when parts of Spain had six months rainfall over four to five days, followed by unusually low temperatures and snow.
Flooding in the fields severally damaged lettuce, broccoli, courgettes, spinach and whole host of other vegetables.
“My demand of Iceberg is around 160 to 180 pallets a weeks and I was getting around 100 pallets coming through,” adds Hedderly.
“Just as we started to see the first signs that things were getting back to normal, more rain hit and temperatures dropped, and then the snow hit Murcia as well so that put us back again. We had huge soiling in the lettuce and had to strip back the leaves to get the mud and dirt out which meant there was virtually nothing left.
“It’s been quite a good thing that there has been publicity regarding lettuce and other vegetables because it’s helping customers to understand why, when they go to their supermarket, they are seeing empty shelves or limited supplies.”