Food prices rise for fifth consecutive month as tomato growers 'try to survive'

If your supermarket receipts haven't made for happy reading lately, you're not alone.

Statistics New Zealand's latest Food Price Index has shown its fifth consecutive monthly rise.

"The price of food typically bought by New Zealanders has increased 0.3 percent in the August month, compared to July, and is 2.4 percent more expensive than it was August last year," says Aaron Beck, senior manager of prices at Statistics New Zealand.

One of the biggest drivers of that increase was tomatoes. But that doesn't mean growers are laughing all the way to the bank.

"It's not about tomato growers making lots of money, it's about tomato growers trying to survive," says Anthony Tringham, director of Curious Croppers in Clevedon.

Fewer imports from the likes of Australia means low supply, putting more strain on homegrown produce. And for producers, costs are going up.

"Energy and labour impacts significantly on the price of tomatoes. The price of vegetables can't not go up, or everyone goes broke," says Tringham.

Plus, to state the obvious, we're only just coming out of winter. Tomatoes need warm weather to grow.

"Because their production is so small, because there's no sunshine, there's not much money coming in. It's still much better to wait a little while, and have tomatoes being picked and growing when there's more sunshine," says Tringham.

"Tomato growers schedule their production to start picking around now. So very soon you'll see large quantities coming on the market, but right now, over winter, there's hardly any."

While tomatoes were up by 16 percent, grapes were August's worst offender, rising by 32 percent. But there was some good news: broccoli prices fell by 26 percent, while strawberries fell by 19 percent, capsicums by 12 percent, and avocados by 21 percent.

But August was particularly hard to swallow for carnivores, with roasting pork up by 11 percent, sausages by 3.5 percent, lamb chops by 5.4 percent, and porterhouse & sirloin steaks by 2.3 percent. This was slightly offset by a 3.3 percent drop in the price of chicken pieces.

"It's winter right now, grass isn't growing, and that means the amount of supply of red meat in particular, obviously beef and lamb, is low. Meat is seasonal like every other food," says Retail Meat spokesperson Kit Arkwright.

While COVID-19 can be blamed for issues with supply chains or imports, Statistics NZ says it hasn't impacted their data.

It was able to get all the supermarket scanner data as usual, and its field price collection - such as restaurants and ready-to-eat meals - was completed under alert level 1.

"The prices observed, we were able to do that as we would any normal month. The underlying impact of COVID-19 on those prices is hard to unpick," says Beck.

Cheaper steaks and tomatoes are on the horizon. In the meantime, the advice is to shop seasonal. 

"It's winter, don't buy them if they're too expensive. They'll be very cheap, fairly soon," says Tringham.

"There are shifting sands of factors that influence price. At the moment prices are being felt, but of course when there's a little bit more supply on the market, prices can come down as well," says Arkwright.

Simple advice it may be, but then the best advice always is.