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Banana-drama: Columbian strike against pay cuts threatens supply of UKs favourite fruit

Fairtrade Foundation says bananas were selling in UK for roughly £1.10 a kg in 2002, compared to 68p now

The supply of bananas, the nation's favourite fruit, is in crisis. Looming strikes in Colombia could affect UK stocks, amid claims supermarkets' increasing pressure for low prices is unsustainable.

More than 18,000 workers in Colombia voted in favour of strike action over pay cuts this week. The Latin American country is one of the biggest suppliers to the UK - accounting for 25 per cent of bananas imported to the UK last year - but NGOs have warned strike action may cause supply trouble for retailers.

One UK organisation, Banana Link, predicted the flow of more than a million bananas a week could dry up as quickly as a fortnight from the start of the proposed strike in a week's time.

According to the The Fairtrade Foundation, bananas were selling for roughly £1.10 a kg in the UK in 2002, yet today a kilo of bananas costs around 68p.

Tesco sells some of the cheapest bananas, with their 'Everyday value bananas' selling at 14p each, whilst Waitrose organic bananas are sold for 31p each.

Barbara Crowther, Fairtrade Foundation's director of policy and public affairs, said: "Bananas are the UK's favourite fruit - we eat more bananas than any other fruit and so they are seen as an iconic product by retailers. Therefore there's a very competitive environment around the price of bananas. We now have a situation where the price of bananas at this end of the supply chain, are being held very, very low.

"We believe pricing to be unsustainable," said Ms Crowther. "It should be about getting more value back down the supply chain in order to address these issues at the farm level. We do no need to look at a sustainable pricing level."

Sintrainagro, the Colombian agricultural workers union which represents around 90 per cent of the country's banana exporters, had been locked in negotiations with the banana industry body, Augura, which represents 90 per cent of banana producers in the Uraba region. Talks broke down last week and members' balloted to strike. Workers have until 17 June to set a strike date if an agreement over pay cannot be reached.

Banana Link, an NGO based in the England told food consumer magazine, The Grocer, a strike was likely to have an effect on supply, due to the large volumes of bananas from the country sold in the UK.

The NGO said though there was a chance the strike could be averted, but due to the huge gap between Augura's proposal to cut the rate for some jobs by 40 per cent and what the union expects, it was unlikely.

Andrew Opie, Food Director at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Retailers and their suppliers are monitoring this issue closely to ensure there is no disruption to sales of a very popular fruit. UK retailers take their ethical responsibilities very seriously and have achieved a great deal in advancing labour rights within their supply chains.  The clearest demonstration of this is the massive growth in Fairtrade bananas, which account for a significant proportion of bananas sold in supermarkets.

"It is too simplistic to compare the selling price in UK stores and the price suppliers receive. Bananas are often promoted in stores as they are so popular with customers, but the retailer will invest in those promotions themselves and make sure suppliers get a sustainable price."