Unilever has been accused of favouring the multiples over the independents by supplying its limited stocks of ice cream to the big four first.

Britain's biggest ice cream manufacturer is battling production problems after a crane broke in its Gloucester central distribution plant, reducing its output. Wholesalers are already facing shortages, with some reporting that certain lines have dried up.

However, they claimed, the multiples were still being supplied. "When we asked Unilever why the multiples still have supplies but we don't, we were told the multiples were their biggest priority," said one wholesaler. "In effect, they said independents are not a big priority."

Unilever denied it was prioritising the multiples, although it admitted it couldn't meet demand for ice cream at present. "Good progress has been made in working through the backlog in demand following the difficulties we faced at our Gloucester cold store," said a spokesman.

"However, we continue to experience demand that outweighs the speed at which we can supply. We are distributing to customers in a fair and equitable way and are confident our rate of delivery will improve significantly over the coming weeks."