Retailers have started looking to rationalise fresh fruit & veg lines to focus on less expensive and labour-intensive produce, growers have claimed.
The move was being taken to drive down costs, said Lee Stiles, secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association, which represents more than 500 growers across England.
With labour “not something growers have a lot of at the moment”, retailers were considering cutting SKUs for anything that might require additional manpower and was more expensive to produce, Stiles said.
“They are cutting the amount of tomato lines they buy, and they are cutting the amount of processed fresh produce they buy, like cut and packaged fresh [lines],” he pointed out.
And while retailers were not yet reneging on orders with growers, Stiles said for products such as tomatoes, where there can be as many as 200 different variants, supermarkets were now looking to streamline their offerings.
“They might not have as many in a pack, so the pack sizes might be smaller, [and] they might not be offering as many varieties, so they may not be offering loose cherry [and] sticking to vine tomatoes, [or] they might not be offering the bigger round ones anymore,” added Stiles.
“Anything that needs additional labour in weighing or packaging or that type of thing, they are cutting. So, they are cutting down on choice.” Processed foods like cut cucumbers were also likely destined for the chop with only whole cucumbers expected to be stocked, he suggested.
In the long term, growers would restrict what they grew, which Stiles warned would lead to a rise in imported produce. “If they do decide to increase their lines at any time, then a lot of the processing will probably be done abroad where they don’t have the same labour issues as we do,” said Stiles. “So, I would imagine that British growers will stick to a much-reduced offering.”
While turnover and profitability would fall for growers, “they cannot get over the lack of supply of labour and the high energy prices. It is not something they can overcome, so they couldn’t carry on doing what they are doing because it just wouldn’t be financially viable”, added Stiles.
Cost-cutting measures were likely tied to waste, with items such as chopped cucumber having a shorter shelf life, suggested British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward
The berry industry has also highlighted a trend to cut down on waste driving retailer strategy recently, with Nick Marston, chair of industry body British Berry Growers, telling The Grocer last month it had seen a rise in “a more conservative approach” to buying.
Rob Harrison, commercial director at grower Berry Gardens added: “We have seen a trend driven by uncertainty around volatile sales performance that has resulted in a cautious approach to store wastage risk.”
“As a result, the impact has been a reduction in retailers pushing stocks into stores, which has left shelves empty for significant periods,” he added
Moves to simplify offerings due to labour concerns are not unique to the fruit & veg sector. meat processors have also struggled to produce added-value items such as pigs in blankets for the festive season for several years.
Elsewhere, cheesemaker Joseph Heler told The Grocer last November that the business would offer less festive choices of cheese in future due to ongoing labour supply issues.