Why are British supermarkets rationing vegetables?

Shoppers took to social media at signs of the '#vegcrisis,' after bad weather in southern European sharply diminished the supply of greens.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A shopper browses at a vegetable market, in London, Feb. 3, 2017.

Bad weather in southern Europe has led major supermarket chains in Britain to ration vegetables, frustrating shoppers and sparking commentary on social media.

The shortages may underscore the extent of Britain’s dependence on European markets for some staples, as trade links between Britain and the European Union come due for a reshaping.

Spain is an especially important producer for British markets, with about a quarter of vegetables sold in Britain originating in Spanish soil. Flooding there is largely to blame for the shortage of lettuce, with much of the damage coming in Murcia, a region that in recent years has accounted for as much as three-quarters of Spain’s lettuce exports, according to the Telegraph.

"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 [zucchini] and aubergines [eggplants],” said British chain Asda in a statement to the Associated Press.

Spain's vegetable-exporter federation, Fepex, said it was trying to maintain its supply for foreign markets, but added that overall production was down 30 percent from normal levels due to bad weather – including freezing temperatures and snowfall that delayed the harvest of new crops. Production levels weren’t likely to return to normal until April, the federation said.

PlanetRetail analyst Rob Gregory tweeted a photo of a sign in a Tesco supermarket 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."

Dieter Lloyd, a spokesman for the Leafy Salads Growers Association, told the AP that “generally people don't buy three heads of iceberg or six packs of baby gem." He explained, "The reason they are [rationing] is because grocers, wholesalers, restaurants and hospitality outlets were going to the retailers and buying trays of produce."

The online supermarket Morrisons also set limits at two heads – and three heads per visit of broccoli, reported the BBC. A company spokesperson said its availability of the vegetables hadn’t been affected, but that customers had been buying in bulk because of shortages at other retailers.

"We have therefore had a cap on sales of broccoli and iceberg lettuce to ensure we maintain good supplies for our regular customers,” the chain told the network.

A spokesperson from the office of British Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged the situation, telling the BBC that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was keeping abreast of it.

Some responded with humor. London-based finance journalist Ben Moshinsky quipped, "This is why I voted Romaine."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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