Hull’s big fruit and veg seller explains shortages and the supermarket problem behind it

Wholesaler Rob Darcy has tomatoes galore but explains why shoppers are struggling.

Following a pandemic, rising inflation and soaring energy bills, people in Hull and elsewhere are now walking into shops to find empty shelves.

Supermarkets in Hull and elsewhere have seen supplies of tomatoes and other fresh produce, leaving shelves empty in one of the world’s most advanced economies. Naturally it has left people asking why, with many pinning the blame on Brexit and rising energy bills, with poor conditions in food producing countries triggering shortages.

But for one Hull fruit and vegetables wholesaler, the seeds of the crisis lay within the way the industry works and unrealistic expectations of low prices from supermarkets. Rob Darcy told Hull Live bad growing conditions had tipped the scales in growers’ favour, meaning they can now demand much more for their product with supermarkets unwilling to pay.

‘This isn’t really about Brexit’

The director of Dennis Butler Ltd said factors like energy prices, climate change and uncertainty in the industry meant shortages may be around for some time. Mr Darcy said: “We’ve got plenty of fruit and vegetables here like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce.

“The difference for us is that we’re willing to pay a premium for it and our suppliers are greengrocers, market traders and other independents, we don’t work with supermarkets. At the moment everyone’s having to pay a premium to get fruit and vegetables.

“What you find is that most places on the continent have fruit and vegetables. The difference isn’t so much because of Brexit, which in effect just leaves us with more paper work to deal with, it’s that the British public have been led to believe that fruit and vegetables cost next to nothing.

“Supermarkets sell fruits and vegetables as a loss leader, people may remember seeing parsnips being sold in them for 19p at Christmas, but you can’t get it at that price and make a profit. The reason why the supermarkets can’t get the vegetables now is because they they’re not willing to pay the prices growers can demand at the moment because of the conditions elsewhere.

“All that’s left now is a few huge growers who have to sell to supermarkets who have driven prices down. That’s where you get shortages from ultimately, because they’re false prices.”

People used to buying at ‘false prices’

Mr Darcy said UK consumers had gotten used to paying unrealistically low prices compared to buyers on the continent. The director said: “If you go on holiday to somewhere like Spain and you go to a supermarket, you’ll notice that the fruit and vegetables cost a lot more.

“People there are used to paying more for it, even though they’re the places that are growing most of it. That situation’s brought them on now because with carrots for example, prices have gone up now because of bad growing conditions

“So the big growers start to react to that by raising their prices. They can’t say they’ll just grow more, if they haven’t grown a particular crop in three or four years then they have to buy it all again which is a considerable investment.

“The crops aren’t going to just magic themselves up out of the ground. Then you’ve got the rising energy prices which is also a factor, in a country like The Netherlands they’re growing fruit and vegetables at this time of year but it’s in heated greenhouses which they increasingly can’t afford.

“I think if the public knew how little fruit and vegetables are being sold for there would be more support for British growers. It’s the independents who are sticking their necks on the line with this now, they’ve had to put their prices up but they can’t profit from it because it cost them so much to get the goods.

“If a box of tomatoes costs sellers £18 say, then they have to put up their prices too to cover it. They then have to pay wages, lighting, rent, a lot of things come out of the sale price before they can make a profit.

“They’re essentially breaking even to provide a public service at this point. At the moment a lot of fresh produce is brought here from abroad.