Tim Smith

Imports can benefit British farming by creating demand, Tim Smith has said

Supporting British farmers and growers does not necessarily have to mean moving to 100% British on certain grocery lines, Tesco’s group technical director, Tim Smith, has suggested.

Speaking at the British Meat Processors Association’s annual conference in London on Wednesday (21 May), Smith stressed Tesco had “sent some very clear signals” about sourcing food closer to home in the wake of the horsemeat scandal last year.

This included moving to 100% British on all its fresh chicken, Smith said, adding that such commitments had resulted in additional demand for British food.

However, he also argued imports had an important role to play in building and maintaining consumer demand for certain types of produce, for example asparagus.

“We sell more British asparagus than anyone else, and customer demand is now greater than the UK supply, so when we run out we buy it from South America – because customers want asparagus,” Smith said.

Tesco could choose not to import asparagus out of season – a move that would allow it to make a PR-friendly ‘100% British’ claim – but “that wouldn’t help the customer who wants to buy it in the weeks it’s not there”, Smith said.

“It wouldn’t help UK growers either,” warned Smith, adding that complementary imports created more demand for British growers when in season.

“Our growers then have the confidence to invest in that British asparagus crop, and during the next year we know we will sell more UK asparagus because demand will have gone up during that season.

“Every time we look at this example we see that everyone is a winner, including the customer.”

Tesco pledged to source more of its food from closer to home in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, but has faced criticism from farmers for not making enough progress on its commitments.

Smith said the positive dynamics between British-grown produce and imports also applied to mushrooms and curly kale, where Tesco had made long-term commitments to UK suppliers but also continued to “source from around the world – continuing to keep that demand up so that the product doesn’t stay seasonal”.