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U.K. shoppers face bare shelves and rationing in grocery stores amid produce shortages

London — Some major supermarket chains in the United Kingdom have capped the amount of fresh produce customers are permitted to buy due to supply shortages. Popular items including tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and raspberries have been limited to only two or three packages per person at some chains as photos of empty shelves flood social media platforms.

Bad Weather To Blame For Fresh Veg Shortage
Empty fruit and vegetable shelves are seen in a supermarket, February 22, 2023, in Cardiff, Wales, in the U.K. Matthew Horwood/Getty

The U.K. imports between 90% and 95% of its produce during the winter months, mainly from Morocco and Spain, according to the British Retail Consortium. Those countries have seen bad weather affect crop yields.

"It's been snowing and hailing in Spain, it was hailing in North Africa last week — that is wiping out a large proportion of those crops," James Bailey, executive director of the supermarket chain Waitrose, told Britain's LBC Radio.

Storms have also reportedly caused delays and cancellations to shipments. But farmers say there are other factors to blame, too, and other European nations have not faced the same supply shortages.

While the U.K. typically grows some produce domestically and imports more from the Netherlands at this time of year, producers in both countries have had to cut back on their use of greenhouses because of higher electricity prices, CBS News partner network BBC News reported.

UK - Agriculture and horticulure sustainable technology - Cornerways tomato nursery at British Sugar
Rows of tomato plants growing hydroponically at The Cornerways tomato nursery, the largest greenhouse in the U.K., in Wissington, Norfolk, in a 2012 file photo. In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty

Some British farmers in regions of the country that usually grow produce during the winter months have said they've been priced out of doing so because of soaring energy costs, and by labor shortages caused by Britain's exit from the European Union bloc, or Brexit, which took effect several years ago.

"It's sad and frustrating, but I can't afford to grow," Tony Montalbano, a director of Green Acre Salads in Roydon, Essex, told The Guardian newspaper. "I have to make a profit this year to make up for what I lost last year. If I don't, there's no point in me going on. Lots of growers are closing their doors and selling up."

The U.K.'s environment and food secretary, Thérèse Coffey, told members of parliament last week that Britons should consider eating seasonal items, like turnips, instead of hard-to-get produce like lettuce. Her remarks generated a number of jokes about turnips on social media, and she was quickly rebuffed by the president of the National Farmers' Union who noted the root vegetable was not actually in season.

"I think [the recommendation that people eat turnips] showed an unfortunate disregard for the huge challenge we are facing, and people rightly expect to be able to buy salad all year round," Minette Batters told the television program Good Morning Britain. "We can produce so much more here, and I think having left the EU, it's absolutely vital that we have a change in approach, and that we do invest in our own growers in this country."

UK officially breaks economic ties with EU 08:04

Post-Brexit visa rules also mean some British tomato farmers aren't able to get permits for laborers to enter the country for the entire growing season.

"What that means to us is I now have to train everybody twice. I have to use my best people to train the new people, so my productivity at the peak of the season is really struggling," Philip Pearson, the director of development at the U.K.'s largest tomato producer, told The Guardian.

Supermarkets say the shortages should only last a few weeks as they find new suppliers, but critics say they're indicative of a bigger problem.

"Our supply chains are creaking, and we are seeing a forerunner of what could be a huge crisis," Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City University of London and author of "Feeding Britain," told The Guardian. "There has been a total failure by the government to develop a proper food strategy."

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