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The BRC’s director of food and sustainability had said issues with returns were down to middlemen preventing pay reaching farmers

The berry sector has criticised the BRC’s director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie for “untrue” statements made on BBC’s Countryfile on Sunday.

Opie said issues with low returns to growers could be attributed to how farms “are not the direct supplier to the retailer, often there will be a middleman and that’s often when the money will get stuck”.

British Berry Growers, the group representing 95% of the UK’s commercial soft fruit growers, said Opie’s statement did not apply to the berry industry as most growers had direct relationships with retailers or very transparent relationships through producer organisations.

“Talk is cheap,” said Nick Marston, BBG chairman. “There are no middlemen. Retailers are simply not paying our growers any more money and that is unsustainable.”

Marston explained the cost of production for a punnet of strawberries had gone up by 19p in the last two years and is set to go up another 6p when the national living wage increase comes in next year.

He added that Kantar data showed shelf prices had risen by 27p per pack, but BBG’s growers had only reported an increase in returns of 4p.

“Despite constant material we have given retailers about their massive increase in the cost of production of fresh berries in this country, we have seen no action at all,” Marston explained.

Opie said retailers had been listening to farmers and had taken action to increase payments but could “never be the solution to every farmer’s problem”. He added “where retailers can help they are helping”, cutting profits by 40% in the last year.

“We are calling on retailers to take real action, listen to growers about their cost increases and reward them for producing fresh berries in order for them to stay in business,” said Marston.

This is not the first time Opie has come under fire from the industry for comments made regarding the fresh produce supply chain. 

Earlier this year, when quizzed on the state of the apple sector, Opie said retailers were “slightly constrained” on increasing prices back to growers because “as customers we are all struggling with our own bills at the moment so there’s a limit on how much we can charge at the shelves to then pass back that price to the producers, but we are doing our best to ensure they have got a sustainable future”.

Chair of British Apples & Pears Ali Capper said at the time this statement on keeping prices low for consumers was “simply not true” as shoppers were already paying more. She also criticised the claims that retailers were fully supportive of British fresh produce, saying it was “disingenuous at best”, given the context around how grower returns had barely risen.

“In his extensive interview with Countryfile, of which only a fraction was used, Andrew explained that where there are middlemen between farmers and supermarkets – such as is the case for meat – supermarkets’ positive influence is not always reflected in the price the farmer receives,” said a BRC spokesman. “Meanwhile, where farmers sell directly to the retailer, all relationships are regulated by the Grocery Code Adjudicator, to ensure fairness on both sides.”