Former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Tebbit has poured scorn on suggestions that the current UK lettuce shortage constitutes a “crisis”.
He said it showed “a lack of understanding” of English.
He made his remark after Labour’s Baroness Jones of Whitchurch used the expression in the House of Lords to describe “empty vegetable shelves”.
The government offered reassurance that, among lettuces, only the iceberg variety was in short supply.
Retailers have blamed poor weather in Spain and Italy for limiting stocks of some vegetables, including courgettes and spinach.
‘Let them eat cos’
In the House of Lords, Baroness Jones said of environment minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble: “He will have seen the news reports of vegetable shelves in supermarkets, with the crisis expected to last until the spring.
“And, meanwhile, prices have trebled in part because it costs more to fly vegetables from the USA and Egypt than it does to bring them overland from Spain.”
In his critique of Baroness Jones’s comments, Lord Tebbit, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, narrowed his focus to a particular vegetable.
He asked peers: “Might any rational man or woman think that to describe a shortage of lettuces in a supermarket as a ‘crisis’ shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word in the English language?”
In response, Lord Gardiner said: “I was seeking to be courteous to the baroness, but it’s certainly not a crisis. The only shortage will be of iceberg lettuces, which we think will be for about a few months – and there’s a wonderful variety called cos, which is even better.”
He added: “I was pleased only this morning to hear that cauliflowers from Cornwall are coming on to the market, so we have a great opportunity to buy some British vegetables.”
During the winter, Spain’s south-eastern Murcia region supplies 80% of Europe’s fresh produce. But after suffering its heaviest rainfall in 30 years, only 30% of its growing fields were deemed useable.
This has coincided with a cold snap in Italy, which normally exports vegetables but instead had to start importing them.
Lord Gardiner said his officials had spoken to workers at London’s New Covent Garden, the UK’s largest wholesale fruit, vegetable, and flower market, who had reported an “improving” supply situation.