fruit & veg empty shelves

The traditional big four has had lower than normal levels on core tomato, cucumber and pepper lines following significant shortages last month, analysis of Assosia data has revealed

Fruit & veg stock levels remain far lower than usual at the big four, despite the rowback on recent buying restrictions.

Stock levels of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers – the items most impacted by fresh produce shortages – are much lower than normal for this time of year, according to Assosia data analysed by The Grocer.

It suggests the big four are yet to recover from the shortages that hit shelves last month.

Asda had the most out-of-stocks on 13 March. Assosia data showed 44.8% of its 29 tomato, pepper and cucumber lines were unavailable – matching the lows recorded on 26 February.

It comes in contrast to this time last year, when only 3.7% of these lines were out of stock at Asda.

Tesco is also continuing to battle supply issues. Assosia showed 29.6% of its 27 tomato, cucumber and pepper lines were out of stock, compared with 12.5% this time last year. However, this represented a significant improvement on 26 February, when out of stocks hit 92.6%.

It was a similar story at Morrisons, which this week had 22.7% of its tomato, cucumber and pepper lines out of stock, compared with 4% this time last year.

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Sainsbury’s had the best availability of the big four. Across those lines, 13.5% were out of stock. However that was still higher than last year’s figure of 10.5%.

Sainsbury’s was the only one of the big four not to introduce rationing at the height of the shortages last month.

However, only Morrisons continues to have restrictions in place. Tomatoes, lettuce and peppers are limited to two packs per customer – though it removed restrictions on cucumbers last week.

Tesco announced on 14 March it would end all restrictions, following similar moves at Asda, Lidl and Aldi.

One industry spokesman said fresh stock levels were “improving” but the issues that had contributed to the shortages remained.

In February, the BRC’s Andrew Opie attributed the shortages to “difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa”.

In addition, a reduction in UK production has left it more vulnerable to experiencing supply issues, according to growers, with the NFU warning salad production this year were expected to fall to their lowest levels since records began.

“The consequences of undervaluing growers can be seen on supermarket shelves right now. Shelves are empty,” said NFU president Minette Batters at the height of the shortages last month.

“This is a reality we’ve been warning government about for many months. Without urgent action there are real risks that empty shelves may become more commonplace as British horticulture businesses struggle with unprecedented inflationary pressures, most notably on energy and labour costs.”