The government’s food tsar has blamed Britain’s “weird supermarket culture” for shortages of certain vegetables.
Henry Dimbleby said “fixed-price contracts” between supermarkets and suppliers meant that when food is scarce, some producers sell less to the UK and more elsewhere in Europe.
But the body that represents supermarkets denied that business was hampered by such contracts.
Several supermarkets have limited sales of fresh produce in recent weeks.
Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are among those vegetables in scarce supply, largely because of extreme weather affecting harvests in Spain and North Africa.
Shortages are said to have been compounded by high energy prices impacting UK growers, as well as issues with supply chains.
They also come as households are being hit by rising prices, with food inflation at a 45-year high.
As an example of “market failure”, Mr Dimbleby, who advises the government on food strategy in England, said UK lettuce prices in supermarkets were kept stable, regardless of whether there was a shortage or over supply.
He said this meant farmers could not sell all their produce when they had too much – or be incentivized to grow more.
“If there’s bad weather across Europe, because there’s a scarcity, supermarkets put their prices up – but not in the UK. And therefore at the margin, the suppliers will supply to France, Germany, Ukraine,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
But Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK supermarkets, said retailers were “pragmatists and recognize they need to pay more when costs are high and product is short”.
“They’re working with growers everyday,” he added.
Mr Opie said regulation for supermarkets in many European countries meant retailers there were “able to, and actually required” to pass on extra costs to customers.
“Whereas UK retailers are doing everything they can to insulate consumers from rapidly rising prices, meaning cutting their margins and negotiating on behalf of consumers to keep prices as low as possible,” he added.
He said importing tomatoes and lettuces from abroad during the winter allowed supermarkets to offer customers “best value for money”.
Mr Dimbleby, however, said he found the current situation “frustrating” because “everyone is suddenly worried about a gap of vegetables in February, when there are much bigger structural issues”.
“There’s just this weird supermarket culture,” he said. “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.”
He added it was a “very difficult one for the government to solve”.
‘Not fit for purpose’
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), told the BBC that some producers were on contracts that could be renegotiated to factor in higher production costs – but not all of them.
“The fact that these contracts in many cases are not fit for purpose and if you’re not getting a fair return for what it is costing you, you’re going to contract your business,” she said.
“It’s why we are seeing many of the glasshouses across the country mothballed. They should be producing high quality food, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, to deal with this shortage.”
The NFU president said the war in Ukraine had changed the outlook for food security, but added she had been told previously by ministers and officials that “food grown on our land is really not important at all, we are a wealthy nation and we can afford to import it”.
“I think that is now looking naive in the extreme,” she said. “We’ve got huge capability here to be producing more of our fruit and vegetables.”
The government has been contacted for comment.
Mr Dimbleby criticized the government last year and said ministers had only taken half of his recommendations from a landmark review of Britain’s food system.
He told the Guardian that food shortages would not be resolved until ministers looked at what he outlined in his food strategy.
Last year, the UK faced a shortage of eggs, with supermarkets limiting how many customers could buy.
The BRC said at the time that a variety of factors including avian flu and the cost of production had hit supplies – but some farmers blamed retailers for not paying a fair price.