The big four have driven down apple prices by more than a fifth over the past year as they pursue their relentless price war.

A kilo of the cheapest available apples in the big four cost 73p on average in February - 22% less than last year, The Grocer 33 data has revealed.

In introducing their new value ranges, the supermarkets had devalued the whole category, claimed Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears, who accused them of over-reacting to the discounter threat.

"As soon as the season started, we saw pressure from buyers to reduce prices," he said. "The papers were full of stories of the growth of the discounters, which I think was wildly exaggerated, and the response by some of the multiples has been inappropriate."

To make matters worse, added Barlow, most of the cheap apples were sourced from the Continent, flying in the face of consumer demand for locally sourced produce. Supermarket cost-cutting had extended to in-store presentation, he added, and less attention was being paid to making apple displays look good.

"It's important there are sufficient resources in store to maintain the displays," he said. "If there's an emphasis on cutting costs then you get inadequately packaged and merchandised produce and displays. I think the effect has been to reduce sales."

Lower returns were also harming producers, Barlow said. Growers saw production cost increases of 15% last year as they battled fuel, energy, packaging, pesticide and wage rises.

As costs rose at the production end and margins tightened at the retail end, some growers were putting investments on new grading, storage and packing facilities on hold, he added.

"These prices have had an adverse effect, and although we are selling all of the [English] crop, the returns have not been as good as we'd have liked."

Apple volume sales fell 4.3% last year [Nielsen], although they remained the top-selling fresh produce item.