Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has hinted at a new government review into fruit & veg supply chains, despite continuing to downplay the impact of recent shortages.

In an often confrontational Commons Efra Committee session this week, Coffey said she had lined up one or potentially two “reviews for the future” in a bid to better understand the issues faced by producers.

UK growers have been reining in production due to soaring costs and ongoing labour issues, while the supply situation has been further impacted over the past month by bad weather in the key growing regions of Spain and northern Africa. 

Similar supply chain reviews are currently underway in the dairy and pig sectors, in response to challenging trading conditions over the past two years.

However, despite her suggestion, Coffey went on to largely dismiss the supply chain challenges within the fresh produce sector last month as a “temporary situation”.

“There was still availability, it just wasn’t quite as readily available,” she added.

In her view, “our supermarkets by and large still had a supply, and they chose different ways on interacting with their customers on whether or not to restrict the numbers of purchases”.

But in a session that often descended into name calling between Coffey and opposition MPs, she did concede the latest shortages ran deeper than just weather issues – something she had previously denied.

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“There were still tomatoes produced and they went to other supermarkets in other countries who were prepared to pay more,” she admitted.

Coffey went on to say the UK had a “strong, resilient supply of food”, citing the Covid pandemic as an example of where the supply chain worked.

She also repeated her dismissal of problems within the egg sector by attributing shortages to wholesale supply chain failings rather than systemic issues within egg production.

Her comments come following a Lords Horticultural Committee meeting last week in which John Shropshire, former G’s Fresh Group boss and chair of the Independent Labour Review for the government, called for a “major major sort-out” of the government’s Seasonal Worker scheme and criticised Whitehall’s recent handling of seasonal labour issues.

Shropshire offered a withering insight into the labour crisis in a House of Lords Horticulture Sector Committee on Thursday. Without a functioning Seasonal Worker scheme “we will just export the industry, because it is easier”, he warned.

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“We have got to have the scheme if we want to have a horticultural industry because British people want permanent jobs,” he said, speaking on behalf of G’s rather than the government – while pointing to how unattractive seasonal work was for UK workers.

He then added the idea British workers were “lazy” was “rubbish”, reinforcing how seasonal work was better suited to those with no ties that could travel across the country as the harvest season progressed. He pointed out issues attracting locally based seasonal workers were the same “everywhere else in the developed world”.

Germany, the US and New Zealand “all have a really good [seasonal worker] scheme, and we had a really good scheme in the [previous] Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme”, which ended in 2015, he said. The current framework for recruiting foreign workers was no longer adequate, he added.

Shropshire added that the lack of clarity around the scheme had put the industry “on the back foot” and opened it up to “abuse”. The scheme’s scope had been announced as late as March on one occasion in recent years, he pointed out. 

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