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Restaurants accused as supermarkets ration lettuces amid vegetable shortage

Restaurants and shops have been accused of sparking a lettuce ration by bulk-buying the salad favourite amid a European vegetable shortage.

Supermarkets have limited the number of lettuces each customer can purchase in stores and iceberg, sweet gem and romaine varieties have been taken off sale completely by some online.

An extreme mix of drought followed by flooding and freezing conditions has severely affected growers in southern Spain, while poor conditions have also hit farmers in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Dieter Lloyd, spokesman for the Leafy Salads Growers Association, said: "I think people are getting very surprised by the notion of rationing.

"But generally people don't buy three heads of iceberg, or six packs of baby gem.

"The reason they are doing it (rationing) is because grocers, wholesalers, restaurants, and hospitality outlets were going to the retailers and buying trays of produce.

"The retailers are trying to curb that because they want the produce to be available for customers rather than the hospitality industry or the wholesale market or greengrocers."

Experts have warned that if the weather does not improve in the coming weeks the problem may continue until April, with customers hit by price rises.

The lettuce shortage follows similar reductions in the supply of courgettes, while salad peppers, broccoli and cabbage supplies are also under pressure.

London retail analyst Rob Gregory posted a photo on Twitter of empty boxes in a Tesco store and a sign that read: "Due to continued weather problems in Spain, there is a shortage on Iceberg and other varied lettuce products.

"To protect the availability for all customers, we are limiting bulk purchases to three per person."

A Tesco spokesman said they were "experiencing some availability issues" due to the bad weather in Spain

"[We] are working with our suppliers to resolve them as quickly as possible," he said.

Mr Lloyd explained the weather meant supplies were down to 30% or 25% of what would normally come out of Murcia in south Spain.

He said: "The problem I think we are facing now is that obviously in terms of supplying to Europe, that area has got a tiny amount of supply relative to what it would normally have.

"And that is going to whoever is prepared to pay for it, s o the prices are inevitably going up at the moment.

"For the Spanish growers it is a disastrous season. There is no other way to describe it. People's livelihoods are at stake here and that is a very serious and sobering thing.

"It is important to say this is the first time in 30 years and I think there is a great sense of 'crikey, this is vegetable Armageddon' type thing.

"This is a pretty rare occurrence, but it is quite serious on this occasion, and I think the thing that has driven it is that it is rare to see the shelves empty," he said.

Mr Lloyd said consumers do not widely have the option of buying British lettuce at this time of year because it is out of season.

"There is an expectation that you can get pretty much anything at any time of year. However that has come about, is there a debate to be had over logistics and food, and what we eat and when we eat it?"

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was "monitoring the situation".

Supermarkets have been forced to look as far afield as the US west coast - more than 5,300 miles from Britain - to meet demand.

A spokesman for Asda said it was doing everything it could to support its growers and bring them back to full supply as soon as possible.

Apologising for any potential short-term shortage, he said: "Contrary to popular belief, it seems the rain in Spain doesn't fall mainly on the plain and a run of unusually bad weather has resulted in availability issues on a small number of salad items and vegetables such as courgettes and aubergines."

A Morrisons spokesman said: "Our availability of broccoli and iceberg lettuce is good. However, other businesses are experiencing shortages and we have seen some bulk buying in our stores.

"We have therefore had a cap on sales of broccoli and iceberg lettuce to ensure we maintain good supplies for our regular customers. As you can imagine, most customers don't buy more than three broccoli at a time."

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