A DEAL which could see up to 500,000 tonnes of Spanish fruit and vegetables shipped through the port of Southampton every year is to create at least 60 local jobs.

Southampton Fruit Handling, which is based at Berth 104 in the city`s Western Docks, has sealed a contract with growers in Spain to annually import between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, peppers and other fresh produce.

As well as creating jobs in Southampton the deal is estimated to save 20 million kilometres of road miles every year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 47 per cent by taking the produce by sea instead of on lorries.

Initially the arrangement will see one new ship calling at Southampton every nine days but that number is expected to quickly climb to two or three ship calls every week.

The size of the deal means much of the fresh fruit produce on UK supermarket shelves will have passed over the quayside in Southampton.

Spanish government minister Sr Jose Manuel Ortiz was due in Southampton to witness the landmark deal today, which comes as Hampshire Chamber of Commerce and its counterpart in Almeria in Spain sign a historic Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to work together.

Southampton Fruit Handling (SFH), which has been operating in the city since 1987, has a longstanding deal with the Canary Islands to import fresh produce during a seven-month season.

The deal with mainland Spain trebles the size of SFH’s business and turns it into a 52 weeks a year operation.

Managing director Margaret Jenkinson said: “This is an incredible deal. We are in heaven.

It’s not just transformational for us but is fantastic news for the city and the environment as well.

“We have been working hard to make the case for shipping fruit by sea and it has worked in spectacular fashion.

They like the fact that we already operate as a fruit terminal as well as providing all their UK haulage by Fowler Welch.

“They are persuaded by the natural advantages of Southampton, with its road and rail links. From a logistics point of view Southampton is a great place to be.”