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French fries feel the pinch as hot summer frazzles potato market

Whether you call them chips, frites or French fries, it's shaping up to be a bad year for potato lovers.

 [LONDON] Whether you call them chips, frites or French fries, it's shaping up to be a bad year for potato lovers.

The record-breaking heatwave and lack of rain across Europe has hurt potato crops, with prices tripling in the UK in August from a year earlier. That's forced fish and chip shops to charge more for a portion of fries that form one half of the traditional British staple. Further price hikes loom, said Andrew Crook, president of the federation representing more than 10,000 fish and chip shops across the country.

"It's going to be a disaster for us this year," said Crook, who started helping in the family chippy at the age of nine. "I've never seen prices of potatoes be that high at this time of the year. We are getting squeezed."

In the UK, a metric ton of fresh potatoes surged to 300 pounds (S$536.32) last month, the third-highest on records going back to the 1950s, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. Processing potato futures for delivery in April have doubled this year in Leipzig, Germany.

With Europe accounting for eight of the 10 biggest potato eating nations, there's likely to be fierce competition for the starchy tubers this season. While the ninth-ranked British can't match the appetite of Belorussians, they still chomp through more than a 100 kilograms (220 pounds) a year of chips, crisps, roast potatoes and mash.

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With potatoes thriving in wetter climates, the UK harvest will probably drop by at least 8 per cent when it starts this month, according to the AHDB. Crops will be even worse in continental Europe, where the U.K. sources top-up imports, triggering the prospect of a scramble for supplies.

Hot Potato

"We will be fighting for potatoes with Europe," said Crook, the president of the National Federation of Fish Friers who also runs his own fish and chip shop in the village Euxton in northwest England. "There are not enough potatoes to go around, and everything is quite small."

Britain's 1.5 billion-pound fish-and-chip-shop industry is more vulnerable to short-term price swings because it doesn't hold the longer-term contracts favored by supermarkets and large manufacturers. A 12-ounce portion of chips now costs an average of 2 pounds to 2.20 pounds, up from 1.70 to 1.80 pounds at the start of the summer, Crook said.

Growers in northern Europe expect yields to shrink and German processors are warning of shortages of large potatoes, prized for making French fries.

"Potatoes may be smaller, scabbier than in the previous years," said Rob Clayton, strategy director for potatoes at the AHDB in Stoneleigh, England. "Suppliers and manufacturers will have to make more of what they have got."


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