Supermarket contracts and Brexit blamed over empty vegetable shelves

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Shortages of fruit and veg, including tomatoes, have been blamed on supermarket contracts
Shortages of fruit and veg, including tomatoes, have been blamed on supermarket contracts

Related tags Supply chain

Supermarket contracts and Brexit have been blamed for the lack of fruit and vegetables impacting British consumers.

Many supermarkets have had to restrict sales of items such as tomatoes and cucumbers due to a shortage with the reason cited being bad weather in Europe and Africa which has impacted crop production. 

But accusations have been made that while there is a shortage there are more complicated supply chain issues at play.  

Sir Henry Dimbleby, whom is recognised as the Government’s food tsar told The Guardian that these shortages are due to Britain’s “weird supermarket culture”​ calling it a “market failure”​.

Dimbleby, the co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, who advises ministers on a food strategy for England, said Europe was not facing such issues because they did not have the same cultural problems. 

'Weird supermarket culture'

He told The Guardian: “There’s just this weird supermarket culture. A weird competitive dynamic that’s emerged in the UK, and nowhere else in the world has it, and I don’t know why that is.”

However, criticism has not just come from the Government’s food tsar but also suppliers. 

In an update on Facebook​ last week Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson, who owns an organic farm in France, visited a Hungarian supermarket and found no similar shortages there. He said it was “plainly obvious”​ that there were no issues importing from southern Europe.

He said: “The reason people don’t want to talk or export to the UK is that we’re a customer of last resort because we’re such a pain in the arse to deal with because of the paperwork associated with Brexit is expensive, time consuming and it involves the loss of flexibility that most businesses if they can avoid will.”​ 

In response to concern over the empty supermarket shelves, the NFU has launched a strategy to boost UK horticulture.  

Building blocks

It has called for a range of building blocks for agriculture including sustainable energy supplies, access to skilled labour, productivity investment, supply chain fairness and a range of other critical support necessary to create growth in the sector. 

NFU President Minette Batters said the industry needs support from the Government. 

“The consequences of undervaluing growers can be seen on supermarket shelves right now,”​ she said. “Shelves are empty. This is a reality we’ve been warning government about for many months. Without urgent action there are real risks that empty shelves may become more commonplace as British horticulture businesses struggle with unprecedented inflationary pressures, most notably on energy and labour costs.​  

Meanwhile Andrew Opie, director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “UK retailers are working with growers every day and are not hampered by fixed price contracts, they are pragmatists and recognise the need to pay more when costs are high and product is short. 

He added: “Furthermore, the below cost regulation in many European countries means retailers there are able, and actually required, to pass on the extra cost to their customers, whereas UK retailers are doing everything they can to insulate consumers from rapidly rising prices. This means cutting their margins and negotiating on behalf of customers to keep prices as affordable as possible.”

Related topics Supply Chain Fresh produce Brexit

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Agree with Sir Henry Dimbleby

Posted by Mike Collins,

Totally agree with Sir Henry Dimbleby and Guy Singh-Watson, there are full supermarket shelves in Spain and France, so why not the UK, Brexit just isn't working for the UK. Bad weather in Europe is just being put forward as an excuse. We need to rethink support for labour shortages and energy prices because producers are unable to keep a viable business in the UK as it stands.

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Response to Andrew Opie

Posted by Andrea Wilkinson-Leith,

Unfortunately Mr Opie's comments are not logical otherwise there would be supply issues in Europe but there aren't. The law that requires supermarkets not to sell at less than cost price protects growers and producers so they don't go out of business and can continue to supply. UK supermarkets negotiate to protect their own margins, not the consumer! If they were doing it correctly there wouldn't be shortages. None in France!!

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