MPs chide Secretary of State for failure to ‘heed warnings’ over food shortages in supermarkets

Produce Business report

Several supermarket chains in the UK have been limiting the purchase of some fruits and vegetables because of supply chain shortages, and that led to a recent showdown between members of Parliament and Secretary of State Dr Therese Coffey over what could be more dire patterns in the future.

Several media outlets, including The Guardian, have warned of the potential for consumers to be facing months of empty produce shelves unless those chains are fixed or there is less reliance on foreign markets to deliver fresh produce. Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and others have begun rationing out everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to raspberries, and more could be on the way including apples, pears and leeks.

In defense of her office’s work, Coffey blamed the shortages on weather impacting key trade partner countries, including Spain, during pivotal picking seasons. Understanding of those issues but unconvinced that UK could have prevented such shortages, several members levied harsh criticism at the Secretary for not getting ahead of the problem.

Here are some parts of the incredible exchange between Coffey and those politicians:

Dr. Coffey: “The United Kingdom has a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 response, and is well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause disruption.

In the last few days, we have seen Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Tesco apply item limits to a small number of fruits and vegetables in response to issues with supply from Spain and North Africa caused predominantly by seasonal weather hampering production and harvest during December and January. The nature of horticulture and the effect on production of short-term events such as weather can create some volatility, and any growing forecast is subject to short-term alterations. We know that Ireland and other parts of Europe are facing very similar supply issues.

Industry has the capability, levers and expertise to respond to disruption and, where necessary, my Department will further support and enable that. I wish to reiterate that UK food security remains resilient, and we continue to expect industry to be able to mitigate supply problems through alternative sourcing options.

In 2021, we imported over £1.5 billion-worth of fruits and vegetables from Spain and £340 million-worth from Morocco. We consistently import over 30,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every month of the year. Through the winter months, the majority of imports are from Morocco and Spain, but in the summer months, as more production comes online, we also import from the Netherlands. In 2021, our home production accounted for around 17% of tomatoes.

We are working closely with industry bodies across the horticulture sectors to better understand the impacts. Officials have already met retailers, and there will be further meetings to understand their plans to mitigate current pressures. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries will be convening a roundtable of retailers to explore with them their contractual models, their plans for a return to normal supplies, and contingencies for dealing with these supply chain problems.

We know that farmers and growers around the world have been facing significant pressures caused by the invasion of Ukraine and the historic outbreak of avian influenza in Europe. We also recognise the impact of rising food prices as a result of global shocks including the spike in oil and gas prices, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. That is why the Government have taken steps to offer support with energy costs. We cut tariffs to reduce feed costs, we improved avian influenza compensation schemes, and we have taken a range of measures on fertilisers. Indeed, UK growers were able to access the energy bill relief scheme.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue to keep the market under review through the UK agriculture market monitoring group and other engagement forums.

Jim McMahon (Member for Oldham and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Labour and Co-operative): “There is this idea that, somehow, the issue is all down to external forces. Of course, we understand the impact of covid and the spike coming out of that, we understand the impact of Brexit, we understand the impact of Ukraine and we understand the impact of energy prices. We understand all that. The question is, what is in the Government’s control? What levers do they have to make the situation better today? They did not have to make changes to direct payments that undercut farmers. They did not have to agree to international trade deals that undersell UK farmers. They could have made sure that farmers and food producers had access to the energy-intensive support scheme, but they decided not to do that. They could have made sure that the labour quotas were sufficient to ensure that food was not rotting in the fields. All those levers were available to the Government. If they do not understand that food security is national security … there is no hope for the nation.”

Dr Coffey: The retailers have had a pretty reliable supply chain, but what has happened in southern Spain and Morocco is unusual, which is why we need a resilient farming industry and a resilient supply chain. … Gentleman needs to be careful when it comes to the question of ensuring that we retain confidence in the food supply chain. Supermarkets have decided to stop a lot of the buying so that everyone still has access to enough fruit and vegetables. I am led to believe by my officials, following discussions with the industry and with retailers, that this situation will last for another two to four weeks. We must try to ensure that there are alternative sourcing options, which is why the Department has had those discussions with retailers, and there will be further discussions led by Ministers so that we can try to get over this and to avoid similar situations in the future.”

Patricia Gibson (Member for North Ayrshire and Arran): “Farmers across the UK have been warning of the risk of food shortages for some time as a result of rising costs and Brexit trade barriers. Why did the Government not heed those warnings? Who would have thought that, in 2023, the UK would be facing the problem of food shortages which, despite what we have been told, is uniquely affecting the UK? We are the only European country with empty supermarket shelves. The reality is that food shortages are due to low food production, which is in serious decline under this Government’s watch. … In addition, the supermarket sector has been “hurt horribly” by Brexit, according to the chief executive of Sainsbury’s.”

Clive Efford (Member for Elfham, Labour party): “I always knew that the Conservatives were a bunch of bean counters, but this is off the scale—our supermarkets have had to impose a form of food rationing, while the chief bean counter comes to the Dispatch Box and says, “Crisis? What crisis?” Does the Secretary of State agree with the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, who has accused the Government of a “dereliction of duty” for failing to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose post-Brexit set of border checks on agricultural imports?

Dr Coffey: “I think the Hon. Gentleman should withdraw the words and phrases he used, because I did not use those words at the Dispatch Box. This incident is driven by aspects of the supply chain, and the primary source for goods right now is an area that was affected by very unusual weather before and after Christmas.”

Sir Christopher Chope (Member for Christchurch, Conservative): “Does my right hon. Friend accept that 170,000 tonnes of fresh produce is wasted each year in this country? Does she think the current crisis will encourage consumers to value their fruit and veg, and their five a day, more highly?”

Dr Coffey: “It is very important that consumers have that choice, but we are also committed to trying to reduce the amount of food waste. It is a shame for any food to be wasted. We are also concerned about the carbon emissions that arise from food waste, and we are trying to reduce them on our pathway to net zero.”

Amy Callaghan (Member for Dunbartonshire, Scottish National Party): “Despite claims that this is a Europe-wide problem, there are no reported food shortages in France, Germany and other European net food importers. Is it not the case that this problem was created by inward-looking little England and this British Government?”

Coffey: “No, it is not.”

Kirsten Oswald (Member for East Refrewshire, Scottish National Party: “The Secretary of State was booed this week by farmers at the NFU conference for talking down to them and claiming that she knew better about the cause of food shortages. She is telling us today that this is an EU-wide problem, but we can see that there are not the same shortages EU-wide, including in other European net food importers. Does she think that adverse weather really only affects the sunny uplands of Brexit Britain?”

Coffey: “No, that is not the situation.  What we have particularly now is an issue that has affected a supply chain of certain products and the supermarkets are acting. It is happening in other European countries, although not in all of them.”

Wera Hobhouse (Member for Bath, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons): The Secretary of State keeps dismissing the concerns of the farming industry about food shortages, yet supermarkets are restricting food to customers—clearly, her Department is out of touch with the real world. Does she agree that the Prime Minister should call a Cobra meeting because this is now a national emergency and out of the control of her Department?”

Coffey: “As I said to the NFU yesterday, farmers are here to feed the country. That is why we support them and will continue to support them in a number of different ways. We are going through a transition away from a financial support system of direct payments, the basic payment, where more than half the money was going to just 10% of farmers because it was based on how much land people had. That is part of the journey we are on, but there are still significant amounts of basic payments going in. That is why we still want, as our manifesto set out and as I said to the NFU yesterday, to at least maintain the amount of domestic food production, if not increase it. We will continue to try to support that, to ensure that our farmers are there for generations to come.

“We have been told there is an issue for potentially up to four weeks, and I am keen that the sector gets on with alternative sourcing options. Meanwhile, we will continue to encourage and boost food production. That has always been set out in our food strategy and our manifesto commitment, and I am determined we will try to deliver it.”



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