Fish & Chips Battered in U.K. as Deluge Slashes Potato Crop

Fish & Chips Battered in U.K. as Deluge Leaves Soggy Potato Crop
Lower fish prices have helped offset some of the gains in potatoes. About 80 percent of people visit a fish and chip shop at least once a year, according to the National Fish Friers Federation. Photographer: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg

U.K. consumers may have to pay more for the 382 million fish-and-chip meals they buy annually after the second-wettest year in a century curbed the potato crop.

Most of the country’s 10,500 outlets probably raised prices for chips by 10 percent or more, said Gregg Howard, the owner of Our Plaice in Hagley, England and president of the National Federation of Fish Friers. A medium portion of chips now costs 1.50 pounds ($2.42) in his shop, 20 pence more than last month. That may increase again in the second quarter because the new crop won’t emerge until the summer, he said.

Higher costs matter because the average person in the U.K. eats 104.5 kilograms (230 pounds) of potatoes a year, almost twice as much as in the U.S. Farmers more than doubled prices in the past year after the U.K. got an average of 52 inches of rain, the second-highest level since records began in 1910, according to the Met Office, the national forecaster. Great Britain’s harvest last year was the smallest since 1976.

“Everything potato-based is going to go up in price for a while,” said Howard, whose federation represents an industry selling $1.9 billion of fish and chips a year. “Most people are increasing prices marginally, just to cover the increase in potatoes,” said Howard, who buys about 3 metric tons of potatoes a week and says his costs doubled in a year.

Our Plaice sells a portion of cod, haddock, scampi or plaice for 4.20 pounds, while the largest serving of chips costs 2.50 pounds. Customers can add mushy peas, curry sauce or gravy for 80 pence. The most popular fast food in the U.K. is fish and chips, the British embassy in Washington says.

Early Varieties

Supermarket prices for white potatoes were at 86 pence a kilogram (62 cents a pound) in November, the highest for any month since 2001, the most recent government statistics show.

Britain’s harvest slumped 24 percent to 4.64 million tons last year, according to the Potato Council. While early varieties will be sown this month, the main crop is planted in late March, said Rob Clayton, the director of the council in Kenilworth, England. The first potatoes are collected as early as June, with the main harvest in August.

“It gets harder and harder to tell how long this is going to last,” Clayton said. “I still don’t think everyone has a precise strategy on how to utilize the domestic crop to its full potential. Some supermarkets are already advertising to consumers smaller potatoes or products with more blemishes.”

William Morrison Supermarkets Plc, the Bradford, England-based retailer with more than 455 stores, amended specifications for the potatoes it buys to ensure it’s still able to stock British-grown supply, the company said in an e-mail.

Lower Quality

The average price farmers got for main-crop potatoes reached 236.2 pounds a ton in the week ended Dec. 8, the highest since June 1995, according to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Some growers still lost money last year because declining yields meant they couldn’t fill supply contracts or harvested lower-quality crops, Clayton said.

“We were late in planting because the weather was very bad, and then it was cold, wet and there were poor levels of solar radiation, or sunlight,” said Tim Papworth, whose production fell 20 percent on his 350-acre farm in North Walsham, England. “Yields were severely down and quality was affected badly, with blight being an issue as well as slugs.”

Snow Forecast

Eastern England and Yorkshire are Great Britain’s main potato-producing areas. Those regions received about 37 percent more than the normal amount of rainfall in 2012, Met Office data show. Parts of the U.K. may receive snow today, with wintery showers persisting in some eastern areas through at least Jan. 18, the forecaster said.

Imports rose 14 percent to 750,000 tons in the five months through October, the Potato Council said Dec. 20. Combined production across Great Britain, Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium probably fell 17 percent to 22.3 million tons last year, according to North-Western European Potato Growers, a group representing farmers.

The average person in the U.K. eats more potatoes than wheat, according to the United Nations’ Food & Agricultural Organization. It ranks 10th worldwide for consumption in a table headed by Belarus. About 80 percent of people visit a fish and chip shop at least once a year, according to the National Fish Friers Federation. Lower fish prices have helped offset some of the gains in potatoes, Howard said.

“It is a very unusual year, but rest assured fish fryers are keeping the price of fish and chips affordable,” Howard said. “It’s the nation’s favorite dish.”

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