SHOPPERS have been dealt a fresh blow by European vegetable shortages as lettuce became the latest staple to fall victim to the "crisis".

Supermarkets have rationed the number of lettuces each customer can purchase in stores and iceberg, sweet gem and romaine varieties have been taken off sale completely by some online.

An extreme mix of drought followed by flooding and freezing conditions has severely affected growers in southern Spain, while poor conditions have also hit farmers in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Experts have warned that if the weather does not improve in the coming weeks the problem may continue until April, with customers hit by price rises.

The lettuce shortage follows similar reductions in the supply of courgettes, while salad peppers, broccoli and cabbage supplies are also under pressure.

Concerned healthy eaters have been sharing pictures of bare supermarket shelves with the hashtags #lettucecrisis and #courgettecrisis, while complaining that prices have nearly tripled in recent weeks.

London retail analyst Rob Gregory posted a photo on Twitter of empty boxes in a Tesco and a sign that read: "Due to continued weather problems in Spain, there is a shortage on Iceberg and other varied lettuce products.

"To protect the availability for all customers, we are limiting bulk purchases to three per person."

He tweeted: "My local Tesco also affected by the lettuce and salad rationing. Not much there to ration though!"

Sarah Morton, from Manchester, tweeted a photo of a Morrisons shelf label stating customers could only buy a maximum of two each.

She wrote: "Why? I don't get it @Morrisons #arewerunningout.. #lettuce & #HOWMUCH££"

Clare Robson wrote on the Northern Echo's Facebook page: "Both Tesco and Aldi in Newton Aycliffe have limited stocks, not just lettuce, and lettuce sales in Tesco are limited to three per customer."

Leane Gibson wrote: "Cheers Tesco thanks to the shortage of healthy food I've had to eat chocolate not great for my diet 😂😂😂😂😂 on a serious note yes there's a shortage but it's everywhere due to bad weather in Spain."

While Sharon Robinson wrote: "I had to switch the brand of bagged salad I normally get at Sainsburys for a more expensive one. It's not likely to be much to do with Brexit as we are still in the EU, but Spain has had some atrocious weather."

Stacy Dunn wrote: "I had a shock at the price in Asda last week £1.20 think i'll stick to Aldi."

An employee at G Cunningham greengrocers in Crook, County Durham said the shortage was affecting them. A

She said: “There’s no iceberg lettuce at all . Prices have shot up. He (the owner) has to think about what the customers will pay. It’s hard work being a little shop.”

She said last week the owner was unable to get hold of any peppers and today they are turning away disappointed customers on the hunt for lettuce.

The Northern Echo:

Sean White on our Facebook page is offering his broccoli for £150. Collection only.

Diane Wright, who runs J Woodhall green grocers in Stanhope, Weardale, and daughter Michelle Pickering, who runs a sister shop in Wolsingham, have managed to keep their shelves stocked.

Mrs Wright said: “We’ve lots of lettuce, including icebergs, along with courgettes and broccoli so we’re doing a good trade.

“There was a time last week when we couldn’t get courgettes because they were too expensive, but we’ve got them now and they’re lovely.

“We buy from the North-East wholesale market and there is a shortage so we’ve had to change varieties a bit, but we’ve managed to keep customers happy.

“Some prices have gone up a little, but if people try to support their local shops they’ll find we have what they want, it is a nice change to say we have more than the supermarkets.”

But Robin Blair, who runs JJ Blair and Sons grocers in Darlington's Indoor Market, said it was the worst vegetable shortage he had seen in 65 years of business.

He said: "We always have ups and downs but this has been the worst crisis I have seen. It has been effecting us for about two or three weeks now and it seems it has now filtered down to the big suppliers and supermarkets.

"We have had to get to the markets early to get what produce there is, and what we are getting is more expensive because the growers in Spain are struggling."

Liz and Iain Pocklington, who run a franchise of Riverford Organic vegetable boxes covering North Yorkshire and County Durham, said they had not been widely affected.

Mrs Pocklington said: “We grow seasonally so iceberg lettuce is not something we deliver at this time of year anyway.

“We do have an organic farm in France and grow our own produce so that cuts out the middle man, and we still have other lettuce and plenty of green vegetables.

“We would advise people to buy local, seasonal produce, which cuts out the air miles on most supermarket produce and supports the growing economy in the UK.”

Zena Braithwaite wrote on Facebook: "Stop fussing. What would people of today be like if we had to have rationing again? It's only a lettuce, there are plenty of other veg to have. Have British cabbage or kale instead."

Leeds University production officer Joey O'Hagan tweeted: "Just seen iceberg lettuce for £1.40 in Sainsbury's. A few months back it was 40p."

Spain normally supplies half the vegetables on the European market during the winter months.

Supermarkets have been forced to look as far afield as the US west coast - more than 5,300 miles from Britain - to meet demand.

Coos Hessing, of Hessing Super Fresh, said the situation for lettuce was "particularly severe".

"There have simply been too many cold days, and what's most bizarre about this situation is that it has hit all of south-eastern Europe.

"We had seen this before, but you'd need to go back to 15 years ago," the buyer told industry site Fresh Plaza.

Consumers may see lettuces around two-thirds smaller than usual on sale, while buyers have been looking to the USA and Egypt in order to keep supplies from drying up, Mr Hessing said.

Fepex, Spain's largest growers' association, said the extreme conditions amounted to a "force majeure" and the availability of outdoor-grown vegetables will depend on conditions improving in the coming weeks.

"It is a situation Fepex envisages remaining until at least early April for leafy vegetables grown in the open air, like lettuces, endives and spinach, and their availability will depend on weather in February and March."

A Tesco spokesman said they were "experiencing some availability issues" due to the bad weather in Spain "[We] are working with our suppliers to resolve them as quickly as possible," he said.

A Morrisons spokesman told the Daily Mail: "As a result of the fact that the Spanish harvest has been very difficult this year, we have just about enough coming in to supply our customers.

"We want to stop local tradespeople and restaurateurs coming in and buying lots of stock."