British cucumber and salad growers were this week bracing themselves for plummeting prices as the devastating E.coli outbreak in Germany threatened to swamp the market with cheap EU produce and hit shopper confidence.

As German shoppers were turning away from cucumbers and other fresh veg, key growing countries such as Spain and the Netherlands have been left with a growing surplus of cucumbers now looking for a new home.

The stakes were further raised on Thursday when Russia implemented an all-out ban on all EU fresh veg, elevating the outbreak from a German and Spanish issue to a problem that could wreak significant reputational and economic harm on the EU produce industry.

Suppliers were reporting that cucumber wholesale prices were down by as much as 30% in the immediate wake of the crisis, despite there being no evidence at all that the UK was implicated in the outbreak. One Dutch supplier to the UK reported a decline in cucumber prices of 25% to 30%, and said he was "effectively throwing away" produce. "It shows how misinformation can damage the entire sector, the entire country in terms of the sale of fresh produce," he said.

Although the E.coli outbreak in Germany had depressed sales of fresh salads generally and not just cucumbers on the Continent, it was cucumber suppliers that were especially vulnerable to seeing prices fall in the UK, experts said. "Cucumbers are more of a traded product than, say, leafy salads," said Dr Ed Moorhouse, technical director of G's Marketing. "It's very difficult to just dump lettuce on the UK because of the logistics, but for cucumbers there's already a well-developed export market, so doubling the quantities coming in wouldn't be a problem."

The sudden availability of cheap cucumbers will test supermarkets' commitments to sourcing British. "There are buyers that will be tempted by a cheap offer," added Moorhouse. "If someone says to you 'I've a truckful of cheap cucumbers', do you say no or go to your UK supplier and ask for a discount?"

The UK imports about 150,000 tonnes of cucumbers a year, with Spain and the Netherlands supplying about 70,000 tonnes each [Promar International]. Cucumber prices are expected to fall even though there was no evidence that they were the cause of the E.coli outbreak, with the EU lifting its warning about Spanish cucumbers as The Grocer went to press.

Read more
Shoppers warned to wash salads as E.Coli blame game heats up (2 June 2011)
Spain blamed for ‘poison cucumber’ deaths (31 May 2011)