Lidl became the fifth supermarket to introduce rationing as the government summoned senior executives from some of the leading UK grocers to discuss the supply chain problems.
The discount supermarket announced on Monday that it would “temporarily limit” the purchase of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers to three items per person, following supply chain disruption blamed mainly on extreme weather in Spain and Morocco.
Lidl’s announcement means that five out of the six biggest supermarkets accounting for more than two-thirds of the UK grocery market, according to data from Kantar, are rationing supplies of salad vegetables.
Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second largest grocer, has said that it will not impose limits on purchases of vegetables for the moment, although it confirmed it is also experiencing shortages.
Supermarket executives spoke to Mark Spencer, food, farming and fisheries minister, on Monday afternoon in a call that focused on avoiding future repeats of the shortages, rather than resolving the current rationing, according to one source close to the talks.
They added that there were no discussions about the government intervening to support producers as farmers had called for last week. One industry insider dismissed the talks as “a way for the government to sound busy”.
In a statement after the meeting, Spencer sought to reassure the public that the food supply chain was “extremely resilient,” adding: “I spoke to retailers today to hear from them direct about the important work they’re doing to respond to and alleviate the current short term issues. I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables”.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium said the government had been reminded by executives at the meeting “how hard” they were working to address the problem, adding that they had “confirmed that customers should start to see an improvement in the coming weeks.”
He said that although “the majority” of food sold in supermarkets comes from the UK there was a “key role for imported food, particularly outside of the UK growing season, to maintain the supply of affordable food for households.”
He called on the government to develop a “wider strategy” to deal with the issue of food security involving farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and hospitality.
The government has faced a growing backlash over its handling of the shortages. Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey was mocked last week for suggesting that consumers should embrace more seasonable foods, such as turnips, in light of the supply chain issues.
“It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country,” she said. “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.”
Last week, English growers said that imports of salad vegetables had fallen to about a half of expected levels.