Jean-Manuel Spriet, chief executive of Pernod Ricard UK, reportedly accused rival wine producers of promoting misleading 'half-price' discount deals, blaming pressure from retailers: "They (other wine suppliers) make the wines designed for sale at £3.99, introduce them at a higher price, and then bring the price down. They start at £7.99 and are discounted down to half-price, which is crazy."
Coming just a fortnight after The Grocer revealed that Scottish & Newcastle UK had used the Competition Commission's web site to accuse the supermarkets of selling alcohol at low cost in a bid to drive footfall, issues over alcohol pricing are beginning to come to a head. But will these concerns prompt the government to launch a more thorough review of cheap off-trade alcohol? And would higher prices actually help combat the binge-drinking problem?
S&N's complaint earlier this month highlighted the fact that UK law allows supermarkets to sell groceries below the cost of production and therefore to undercut rivals in one product and recoup losses through sales of other items.
While sceptics say the brewer merely waved the 'responsibility' card in order to get the government to take notice of low beer prices in the off-trade, the brewer insists it is not just a retailer problem and believes the whole industry should have a debate about responsibility and value at the same time. The supplier says it is now in talks with the major retailers to thrash out a possible solution. "It's an industry-wide problem," says a spokesman. "We are meeting to discuss how we can all work on this together."
But it's not the first time that binge-drinking concerns have played a part in complaints against supermarket drinks pricing and there have been plenty of grumbles from the on-trade, particularly following last year's clampdown on 'happy hour' promotions in pubs.
Mark Hastings, director of communications at the British Beer and Pub Association, believes there now needs to be a clampdown on the off-trade. "We have consistently raised these issues with ministers," he says. "Our main concern is whether alcohol should be used as a traffic driver through deeply discounted or even loss-leading promotions. Equally, the growing presence of supermarkets on the high street, through convenience stores, means a significant amount of town centre drinking is due to sales from their chiller cabinets."
In its submission to the Competition Commission, S&N emphasised the difference in on and off-trade pricing, claiming that its Foster's lager brand is three times more expensive in bars than supermarkets. "There is now firm anecdotal evidence that drinkers are consuming cheap alcohol at home prior to crossing over to the on-trade for a night out," it said.
Such comments will no doubt rekindle the binge-drinking debate in government. Only a few months ago public health minister Caroline Flint said that it would consider recommending that health warnings be placed on alcoholic drinks.
And this week the British Chiropractic Association and The Drinkaware Trust released figures revealing that 90% of chiropractors have treated patients with injuries caused by alcohol. Sam Jobber of The Drinkaware Trust said: "It seems drinking to excess is increasingly becoming the norm."
Whether a reduction in supermarket price wars would help to tame binge-drinking remains to be seen, but the industry will be even more alert to the situation as Christmas approaches and the aggressive beer price cuts begin.