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Britain facing shortages of fruits, vegetables

Customers stand in front of the collection area outside an Asda supermarket store in London on Dec. 21, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Betty Laura Zapata.

British supermarkets are expecting potential fresh-produce shortages after Christmas, as the ripple effect of France's two-day ban on entry courses through a supply system built on quick turnarounds.

Replenishing stocks of soft fruits and green vegetables in coming days will depend on trucks now stuck at the Port of Dover going across the English Channel to load up for a return trip.

With covid-19 testing slowing their release, there could be difficulties clearing the backlog of more than 3,000 trucks in and around the U.K.'s biggest port, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

"Even working extremely quickly and with Calais possibly shut for Christmas Day, it is clear that it could take until New Year to return to normal operations," said Ian Wright, chief executive officer of the federation. "That means we are likely to see, locally, reduced on-shelf availability of some fresh vegetables and fruits beginning next week."

The flow of ingredients from the European Union into the U.K. also will probably face "significant disruption," Wright said.

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France cut off ferry traffic from Dover on Dec. 20 after a faster-spreading variant of covid-19 prompted a government lockdown in the U.K. The French decision left thousands of trucks stuck in the port and lined up on side roads on the English side.

British supermarkets have already said they are exploring alternative routes to deliver fresh produce in after Christmas -- including air freight, a costlier option than trucks, trains or ships.

Lufthansa Cargo was considering establishing a regular freight-only service to the U.K. This would probably be with a temporarily converted Airbus SE A340 passenger jet rather than the larger Boeing Co. 777F freighter that was used for Wednesday's flight.

Although it's good news that the French border has reopened, "until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods," said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.

Other alternatives include ferries to ship produce direct from Spain, Holland and North Africa rather than through France.

Fresh produce supplies needed to meet demand for Christmas dinners, such as parsnips, carrots or potatoes, were already in the country. However, citrus fruit, lettuce, some salad leaves and other produce including broccoli and cauliflower could be in short supply this week.

The closure of the Port of Dover occurred just as EU and U.K. negotiators sealed a last-minute trade deal before the end of the Brexit transition period.

The blockade ended after French Prime Minister Jean Castex said European Union citizens and residents able to show a negative covid-19 test would be allowed to travel from the U.K.

Ferries arriving from Calais and the trucks they carry were moving midweek, and those transporting fresh foods asked for priority to clear the backlog.


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