Despite the headlines about empty shelves, UK grocery has got off quite lightly. Elsewhere, it’s another story. Michael Barker and Nick Hughes report

You'd be forgiven for thinking it was wartime, looking at newspaper headlines this week.

It didn't quite reach the level of hyperbole and doom-mongering that we saw in the case of swine flu, but the media was awash with predictions of empty supermarket shelves as the ash cloud hung over the country.

There were isolated cases of supermarkets struggling to source exotic fruit and veg lines, but if the middle classes have to do without their guava for a few days, it is hardly going to bring the nation to a standstill. And the multiples didn't take long to swing into action.

A Tesco spokeswoman says that while there might not have been distinct scenario plans in place for volcanic eruptions, the supermarket responded quickly and had double-crew lorries on standby at southern European destinations to meet planes when they were able to land.

"It was a question of being able to be flexible and adapt, to support and help suppliers and make sure product wasn't wasted," explains the spokeswoman.

Over in Kenya, however, it was a very different story, with a real human tragedy emerging and the retailers' policy of heavy reliance upon airfreighted flowers brought into question.

The £300m Kenyan floriculture industry supports 1.5 million jobs in the country. Research by not-for-profit think tank OnBalance shows that the industry has lifted 91,000 people above the $2 a day income threshold and helped 440,000 people live beyond the age of 40. It is believed to have lost at least $1m for every day of the crisis, and thousands of workers were temporarily laid off.

The Kenyan industry was already under pressure from the global economic crisis and the loss of revenue even for a short period threatens the living standards of many people, adds the Fairtrade Foundation, which this week called on banks to relax payments and credit obligations for farmers, manufacturers and retailers to alleviate the suffering.

"Prospects for the one million workers who rely on the Kenyan, Indian and Ecuadorian flower industry for their livelihood are bleak as growers ditch millions of pounds worth of product," says a spokesman.

The Foundation is hoping to put together a campaign to encourage businesses and consumers to source more Fairtrade products to help suppliers recoup their losses, while it is also understood to be discussing developing more robust emergency planning in case of similar crises in future.

According to the Flowers & Plants Association, Kenyan cut flower producers whose main market is the UK multiple retail sector dumped a staggering half a million tonnes of cut flowers in the first five days of the crisis alone as they failed to find alternative routes for their highly perishable airfreighted blooms.

"This situation has been ghastly for the Kenyans and Colombians," says F&PA director Caroline Marshall-Foster. "At least Colombia supplies most of its produce to the US, but Kenya is in a bad way and its reliance on the UK is proving its downfall."

The UK imports 90% of all its blooms as a result of a long-term decline in domestic production. While florists and smaller retailers had the flexibility to buy from other sources, multiples found it harder to do so, Marshall-Foster says. That led to problems sourcing carnations, large headed roses, hydrangea and other tropical plants.

The wholesale markets haven't necessarily offered a get-0ut either, with many of the flowers sold coming in from the Dutch auction, having been airfreighted from outside Europe. Even though British flowers are coming into season, growers cannot simply scale up supply overnight, she warns.

"If this situation had gone on longer, we could have been looking at flower prices going up and supermarket shelves being empty."

According to F&PA there are already trials underway to make refrigerated shipping a viable alternative for some plants. "We are perfecting the technology that will allow us to ship in certain products," says Marshall-Foster.

The challenge they face is how to do that on products such as cut flowers, which are difficult to store and have a short life. Breeding work is already underway on extended shelf life, but it is highly unlikely that sea freight will become a realistic proposition for the majority of flowers.

Fresh produce
In contrast to flowers, disruption in fresh produce was kept to a minimum. The UK imports only 1.5% of its fruit and veg by air about five million tonnes because of the relatively low value of food items and the high cost of air travel. These are mainly higher-end lines such as beans, guava, other exotic fruits and some pre-cut and packed lines.

One major fresh produce supplier, Fresca Group, points out that airfreighting is only used to fill gaps between seasons and on a small number of individual lines. Its only issue has been that documents accompanying sea freight were usually sent ahead by air, but it has been able work around this.

Rectory Foods, which handles meat, fresh produce and ingredients from around the world, describes this week as "business as usual", with MD Nick Bowyer claiming the only impact had been cancelled international meetings and the inability to attend trade shows in Asia.

Minimal disruption
All the major supermarkets stressed that the volumes of airfreighted food they sold were minimal and they had not experienced any major supply chain disruption from the crisis. Both retailers and suppliers have diverted airfreighted flowers and produce to Spain and brought them overland from there.

There were isolated issues, with Tesco saying it had experienced problems importing Thai orchids, while Waitrose reported supplies of Thai baby sweetcorn and Ghanaian pineapple chunks had been disrupted.

Retailers might be patting themselves on the back over their response, but some analysts argue that behind closed doors they will be reconsidering the wisdom of importing even small volumes of high value goods by air. "'Business as usual' may not be quite the same as companies think again about supply chain design and resilience in a new and more challenging light," says LCP Consulting chairman Alan Braithwaite. "The disruption has overtaken the established framework of risk management and contingency planning in the supply chain."

Off the shelf: foods affected
Kenyan cut flowers
Colombian cape gooseberries
Egyptian beans
Mexican spring onions
Ghanaian cut pineapple
Thai orchids
Brazilian figs