Ash cloud halts certain food imports

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fresh produce Supply chain Uk

The grounding of airplanes throughout much of Europe has put the brakes on imports of some fruit and vegetable products, although trade groups and supermarkets are downplaying the impact of the Icelandic volcano on food stocks.

The UK’s Freight Transport Association yesterday warned of a “detrimental effect on businesses and consumers”​, particularly for the import of fresh goods and products with a short shelf life.

“With imports of some fruit and vegetables grounded, certain fresh produce, such as exotic fruits and fresh flowers, are starting to become noticeable by their absence from our supermarket shelves,”​ said Christopher Snelling, FTA’s head of Global Supply Chain Policy. The backlog of air freight waiting to come into the UK is creating an “unprecedented logistical challenge”,​ he said.

Low reliance on air freight

But statistics from the country’s Fresh Produce Consortium, a trade group for the fresh produce industry, said the percentage of fruit and vegetables imported by air freight remains minimal – only 1.5 percent by volume of all fresh fruit and vegetables entering the country.

“Whilst we won’t run out of fresh produce on the shelves, if this continues it will impact exotic products, and it is already having an impact on individual companies that specialise in these particular products,”​ the group told

Statistics from the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) place total UK imports of fresh produce in 2008 at 5,268,000 tonnes – over 60 per cent of all fresh product consumed in the country. Examples of products most likely to be affected by the grounding of flights include green beans, mango, baby sweetcorn, figs, papaya, coconut and sugar snap peas.

Supermarkets are downplaying the risk of major shortages. Tesco says fewer than 1 per cent of its products are air freighted, while Sainsbury’s also says it has a “low”​ reliance on imported goods, most of which are transported via road or sea. Asda agrees it is “not worried yet”​ but warns this may become “more of an issue”​ if the situation continues for over a week.

Flight restrictions eased

Airspace in more than 20 European countries has been closed, or partially closed, since Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano began erupting last Wednesday, launching a massive ash cloud 11km into the atmosphere.

The UK’s air navigation services provider, Nats, this morning advised that some restrictions on the airspace below 20,000ft could be lifted, but at the time of publication the majority of flights from the UK remained cancelled.

According to figures from the Freight Transport Association, air freight accounts for only 0.5 per cent of the UK's international goods movements by weight, but 25 per cent by value. However, the majority of this is made up of higher-value goods such as pharmaceuticals and luxury products.

“The overall tonnage (of air-freighted food) is small, and it is mainly high-end specialty products that won’t be missed on the shelves,”​ said Alan Braithwaite, chairman of LCP Consulting, a supply chain logistics consultancy.

“But every retailer and supplier will be putting in place their own particular strategy to get products to the shelves, and as alternative logistics are found capacity will get squeezed. It’s not an earth-shattering impact on the industry, but it’s clearly big for the companies involved,”​ he told

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