The cost of everyday items continues to rise, with a new Eurostat estimate suggesting consumer prices here rose 8.2% on the year to the end of May.
This translates into higher costs at checkouts, with Kantar recently estimating that the average household’s grocery bill will be €330 higher this year.
But not all price increases are created equal, and a myriad of factors affect different products in different ways.
To help understand what’s going on, we’ve taken a closer look at a selection of everyday grocery items.
Each has seen significant price increases, but each has a different story to tell as to why.
In this article we will consider the prices of tomatoes.
What’s going on with the tomatoes?
When you think about it, tomatoes are an incredibly common feature in your average fridge, cupboard, or pantry.
Even if you don’t buy them fresh, you probably have a few tomato items, whether it’s ketchup, canned chopped tomatoes, puree, or passata.
And the tomato is also what the French call a “mother sauce” – so it’s a great base for so many other things. It features prominently in Italian recipes, of course, but also in many Mexican, Chinese and Indian dishes.
Tomatoes are therefore very versatile – and, generally, very inexpensive.
They are also grown here in Ireland – but we are not a big grower. Irish tomatoes are also only available for a short time of the year; from June to October, which means we are heavily dependent on other countries to keep it well stocked on our shelves outside of the summer months.
According to the CSO, we imported 25,000 tons of tomatoes in 2020, for a value of 46 million euros.
And we rely on two countries in particular, Spain and the Netherlands.
Both countries have a much longer window to harvest tomatoes and some growers are also using massive greenhouses to extend that season to 12 months of the year.
So what’s wrong?
As we know all too well, the price of energy has risen dramatically. This is especially true since the start of the war in Ukraine, but the trend was also up for months before.
Huge tomato greenhouses in Spain and the Netherlands need heating but, because of these energy price hikes, it just wasn’t worth it for many growers this season.
This meant that many in Spain and the Netherlands simply didn’t bother to plant a crop and used less heat, which meant it took longer to grow.
So you had a significant reduction in the amount of tomatoes coming to market over the winter and earlier this year.
But that’s only part of the story – although it is related to the other major factor.
Because this rise in fuel prices triggered a strike by Spanish transporters earlier this year, which lasted about three weeks.
This effectively hampered the country’s fruit and vegetable production, since it was so difficult to get tomatoes from the farm to wholesalers and retailers, especially in other countries.
And there were other work-related issues going on beyond the strike.
Harvesting tomatoes is a very laborious task – they are quite fragile products – so you can’t just send a machine into the field to strip the vines.
Countries like Spain would have traditionally relied on cheap migrant labor to do much of the hard work of harvesting.
But this became a major problem during the pandemic – because it was so difficult to bring in this workforce and the workers were also less willing to travel.
With the relaxation of Covid rules in many places this has eased somewhat – but it still hasn’t gotten back to where it was.
There is currently a general labor shortage in Spain, so there may be better opportunities in the country for people who may have previously been able to pick fruit.
So how much more do we pay for tomatoes?
According to a retailer, the price of canned crushed tomatoes has increased by 29% in six months.
That’s from a relatively low base – but even so, it’s a remarkable jump in a short time. And that’s indicative of the kinds of price increases that we would see in all those other tomato products that are on our shelves.
At the same time, a tray of tomatoes – the little six-packs – was up 10% at one point.
But it could have been more than that based on wholesale pricing – as some in that area of the business were reporting a doubling or even tripling of what they were charged.
So why haven’t retail prices increased so much?
Mainly because retailers didn’t buy them.
What people may have noticed earlier this year is a fairly limited selection of tomatoes on store shelves – and perhaps even listings apologizing for being temporarily out of stock.
Retailers clearly looked at the wholesale price, did the sums, and decided that most buyers wouldn’t pay the extra. So they didn’t even bother to bring the stock in.
Some other companies had to be a bit more creative in their response.
For example, some McDonalds outlets have decided to ration their tomatoes by putting only one slice per burger, instead of the usual two.
Are things improving?
We are now in Irish tomato season, but more importantly, we are also in Dutch tomato season.
Those in the industry say they’re just a much more efficient machine when it comes to sourcing, so availability goes up and price goes down.
But there’s also a warning that this could only be a temporary relief for consumers.
The cost of growing tomatoes keeps rising and climate change is impacting supply, but at the same time retailers are looking to pay as little as possible.
Industry sources say that’s not viable, and what’s happening is that more and more farmers are pulling out of the market altogether, which will eventually drive prices up.
Ultimately, this may mean we are returning to a time when buying tomatoes outside the Irish season is a bit of a luxury again.