Flight Delays Stall Fresh Veggies To Britain

The suspension of air transport in northern Europe is starting to have a severe impact on a number of small to medium size businesses. Companies that supply goods or services to the airlines and airports are the first affected, but so are those who rely on imported foodstuffs and products. Half of the vegetables and 95 percent of the fruit consumed in Britain come from abroad.

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And even as some airports reopen in Europe, there are millions of passengers still stranded - and millions of fruits and vegetables with no way to get in.

From London, Vicki Barker has this report on an industry that's been disrupted by the volcano.

VICKI BARKER: On an unseasonably warm London afternoon, Gary Butterfield sprays cooling water on vine-ripened tomatoes, pale-green fennel bulbs, plump strawberries, papayas and pomegranates. The display tables outside Adamou and Sons Family Grocers are still bulging with produce. But that may change, Butterfield says, on his boss's next trip to the wholesale market.

Mr. GARY BUTTERFIELD (Employee, Adamou and Sons Family Grocers): Were probably going to see some of the things not there that we usually get. We try and get quite a few things from Cyprus, like the herbs - parsley and the coriander, that might not be there. The carob might not be there, things like that.

BARKER: Half of all the vegetables, and 95 percent of the fruit, consumed in Britain comes from abroad. Some travels overland from mainland Europe and arrives in the U.K. on ferries, especially during the growing season. But many perishables are flown in from as far away as China. Like American consumers, Europeans are used to being able to eat seasonable foods all year round.

Anthony Pile's one of the entrepreneurs who's made that possible. His firm, Blue Skies Foods, flies produce from Africa and South America into 12 airports across Europe every day - until the air lanes closed.

Mr. ANTHONY PILES (Founder, Blue Skies Foods): We haven't operated the factories now for almost three days, and we have four of them in Africa and South America focusing their produce on Europe.

BARKER: Three hundred African farmers are dependent on him for their income, Piles says. Now, their goods are rotting in warehouses, and new arrivals are being turned away.

Mr. PILES: We're the conduit. We are the very narrow conduit through which they have to market their products. So if we have problems, they will have problems.

BARKER: With no cash coming in, he says his company - employing 3,000 people -could go under.

(Soundbite of street)

BARKER: Back at Adamou Family Grocers, Yunas(ph) Adamou adds up a column of figures he's penciled onto a brown paper bag. Adamou knows his customers: well-heeled Londoners who might deplore the carbon footprint of airshipped food - until they want blueberries on their cereal in midwinter. He thinks he'll survive the air lane closures and they will, too.

Mr. YUNAS ADAMOU (Co-owner, Adamou and Sons Family Grocers): No one's going to starve. We're all spoiled for god sake, you know. So it's not a question of famine or anything. It may be a wake-up call.

BARKER: But the volcano that may deprive European consumers of some of their little luxuries, may also be depriving farmers and workers in the developing world of their livelihoods.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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