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Consumers should see ‘significant volumes’ of British tomatoes by end of March

Consumers have been reassured they can expect to see “significant volumes” of British tomatoes on supermarket shelves by the end of March as retailers impose buying limits to cope with a shortage.

The British Tomato Growers Association (BTGA) said shortages are mainly down to a lack of imports but the local growing season is due to begin soon.

The BTGA said in a statement: “Many people have commented on the current lack of fresh tomatoes in some supermarket stores.

“Whilst this is predominantly a consequence of the lack of imported product at this time of year, the British season will soon begin and we expect significant volumes of British tomatoes on shelves by the end of March and into April 2023.

“The British tomato season runs from the end of March until November each year.”

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On Wednesday Tesco followed Aldi, Asda and Morrisons in introducing customer limits on certain fresh produce as shortages left supermarket shelves bare.

An initial shortage of tomatoes in UK supermarkets has since widened to other fruit and vegetables due to a combination of bad weather and transport problems in Africa and Europe.

Tesco and Aldi are limiting customers to three of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as a precautionary measure, while Asda is also limiting customers on lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries, and Morrisons has set a limit of two items per customer across tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.

Retailers believe the problems stem from poor yields on the continent and north Africa, and that supplies will improve in the coming days or weeks.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets, said: “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted the harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.

“While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.

“In the meantime, some stores are introducing temporary limits on the number of products customers can buy to ensure availability for everyone.”

However local tomato grower APS Group said it was forced to leave multiple glasshouses empty last year for the first time in the business’s 80-year history.

Philip Pearson, development director at the UK’s largest tomato producer, told The Guardian: “We did say, as an industry, last year: ‘If you don’t support us through the winter you will have empty shelves. Government didn’t listen, our customers didn’t listen, nobody listened.

“I don’t want to sound ‘I told you so’, as that doesn’t help anybody, but we are where we were worried we would end up.”

Mr Pearson said the combination of soaring energy bills to provide artificial light to help the plants grow, especially during the winter, combined with associated surges in the price of fertiliser and the cost of packaging, prompted many British producers and their European counterparts to plant fewer crops this winter.

The company decided it could not afford to run the LED lights required to grow a winter tomato crop, which is traditionally sown in August and harvested from Christmas until July.

Mr Pearson said: “We couldn’t recover the costs at the retail level, because the retailers couldn’t recover it from the consumer, because the consumer was under pressure as well because of the cost-of-living crisis.”

About 160 tomato varieties – from cherry to beefsteak – are grown by APS at six UK sites stretching from Middlesbrough to the Isle of Wight, producing an estimated 650 million tomatoes each year.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called on the Government to support intensive users, such as tomato and salad growers, with energy bills.

NFU president Minette Batters criticised how botanical gardens receive support with energy bills for their glasshouses but food producers with greenhouses do not.