Retail and consumers

Minister rejects calls for intervention over soaring UK food costs

The UK government has rejected the case for restraining price increases on essential food items despite surging inflation and calls for an inquiry into supermarket “profiteering”. 

Mark Spencer, minister for food, farming and fisheries, has ruled out asking retailers and producers to stop raising prices only weeks after food inflation hit its highest level in more than 45 years.

Spencer said “it was not for the government to set retail prices nor to comment on day-to-day commercial decisions by companies” in response to a parliamentary question on Thursday.

However, he added, government officials would continue to work with companies to ensure groceries were affordable.

His remarks stand in contrast to actions taken by France, which reached an agreement with food retailers in March to set the “lowest possible price” on certain products for three months. This week, supermarkets had agreed to extend these efforts, said Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister.

UK supermarkets, meanwhile, have been accused by some MPs and trade unions of “profiteering” and failing to rein in soaring prices. The cost of food surged 19.2 per cent in the year to March with sharp rises across almost all categories.

The bosses of the largest supermarket chains have claimed, however, they are not raising prices in step with headline inflation and that their profit margins are wafer-thin.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP and environment spokesperson, on Friday accused the minister of an “appallingly shameful and heartless dereliction of duty” at a time when families were struggling to afford to put food on the table.

Farron urged Spencer to demand the competition watchdog launch an inquiry into “shameless profiteering” by the supermarkets and extend free school meals to 800,000 children living in poverty.

Spencer added that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs met regularly with food retailers and trade associations to discuss a range of issues, including the effect of food inflation.

The minister made the comments in a written response to Patrick Grady, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North, who had written to him about the problem of rising grocery costs.

Defra was “taking action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by militating against any potential burdens or friction which could otherwise drive up consumer food prices,” Spencer added.

Supermarkets were selling more value-range items, matching rivals on prices and freezing them on certain products, he said, to help households cope with costs.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak is due to hold a meeting at Number 10 this month with supermarket bosses, trade bodies and farmers to discuss a range of issues, including high inflation.

A government spokesperson said the meeting would bring together government and representatives from across the food supply chain to set up co-operation and promote all elements of the farming and food industries.

“The event will look at how we can champion UK food and drink both at home and abroad by boosting confidence, helping more businesses to invest in domestic production and supporting the long term resilience and sustainability of the UK food sector,” they said.

Last year, Downing Street was accused of making “reheated announcements” after it unveiled a series of existing corporate measures aimed at helping households cope with the cost of living crisis.


Business Asia
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