Growers had already cut back on crops to more closely match supply with demand but poor weather has also taken its toll, says Michael Barker

Fresh produce might still be cheaper than it was a year ago, but a combination of tight supplies across the Continent and weather problems in Spain has sent the price of many popular items rapidly upwards.

The overall basket of 12 fruit and veg items now stands at £11.57, 1.9% more than it was a month ago and a hefty 19% dearer than in November. Late last year shoppers were enjoying produce at prices 10% below 2008 levels, but the days of such cheap shopping now appear to be on the wane.

Apples are the biggest month-on-month mover, with prices soaring 28.8% to 87p/kg. As predicted by The Grocer (13 February), prices have climbed as a result of less fruit coming on to the market as European growers have planted fewer crops.

Growers had suffered as a result of poor prices in the last two years, according to English Apples & Pears CEO Adrian Barlow, and had sought to match supply more closely with demand this season.

Oranges are up 5.3% month-on-month and 29.6% against the same period last year as a direct result of weather problems in Spain, said Prag Mistry, MD of citrus importer Fruitmann.

"It's been a very difficult crop, with very heavy rain and wind wiping out crops and bringing smaller fruit size. There's been an influx of Egyptian oranges to compensate but those are more expensive because of the distance."

The Spanish weather has also been the chief reason for the price of iceberg lettuces now being 19.1% more expensive than a year ago at £1.03 each, according to Langmeads' business quality manager Pancho Gonzales. Other leafy salads and brassicas have also been hit by the washout, which has affected a wide range of crops in the key growing region of Andalusia.

Fortunately for consumers, retailers have been swallowing a margin hit on other lines. Despite the weather leading to much tighter Spanish garlic supplies, supermarkets have kept prices down at just 25p, almost a third less than a year ago.

The figure is a legacy of a price war on garlic over the past year, according to a retail source. Supermarkets previously enjoyed a 50% to 60% margin on garlic but the combination of the price war on staple products and higher Spanish prices has meant that margin has been significantly eroded, he claimed.

A move towards round-pound price points and attempts to invigorate tropical fruit sales have seen the price of pineapples fall 7.6% year-on-year.

Onions are also cheaper at retail this year, bucking a trend at wholesale and European level as retailers sell more onions in the cheaper value packs, said Jonathan Tole of the British Onion Producers Association.

However, he predicted that tighter supplies coming from New Zealand and delays in Chilean shipments could send the price up again in the coming months.

Bananas have returned to their usual average price of 97p/kg, having spent large periods of 2009 sold at heavy discounts. Suppliers still insist, though, that the price needs to more closely match the European average of £1.20/kg.