Source: Shutterstock

TV speedster turned TV farmer Jeremy Clarkson is said to be on the guest list

Rishi Sunak’s looming food summit will be dominated by discussions on how to get a grip on inflation, with supermarket bosses saying they are prepared for hours of talks with the PM and his team to try to tackle soaring food prices.

However, it is understood the PM has cast the net far and wide for organisations to attend the event next Tuesday.

The guest list includes TV celebrity Jeremy Clarkson, star of Amazon series Clarkson’s Farm – according to a Whitehall source – as well as Kaleb Cooper, a farm worker featured in the series, and Charlie Ireland, known as Cheerful Charlie, the agronomist and land agent who advises Clarkson in the show.

The Grocer last week exclusively revealed the PM had summoned food bosses to Westminster for face-to-face talks, though there has been widespread speculation over the content of the discussion.

Supermarket sources have told The Grocer there has been one dominant request from the PM and his team, on how to begin turning the corner on food prices, which are threatening to wreak havoc with the former Chancellor’s financial forecasts with the next election on the horizon.

Last week fresh food prices saw a record jump of 17.8% year on year, according to the BRC. It is understood this prompted the decision to bring the summit forward from the original timing of later this year, to next Tuesday, 16 May.

NFU batters and sunak

Source: NFU

Sunak met with NFU president Minette Batters last year, when she emphasised the importance of him honouring commitments he made during the leadership race

“All the indications we have been given are that this is all about tackling inflation,” one supermarket source told The Grocer.

“The prime minister is concerned that his forecasts for inflation have slipped with food prices a major driver.

“Make no mistake, this is an inflation summit, or perhaps more accurately, it’s a deflation summit.”

It has also emerged the PM expects the meeting to be attended by CEO-level supermarket bosses, as well as leaders of trade bodies such a the NFU, FDF and the BRC.

“There are going to be top level talks. The aim is for chief executives, although with the talks likely to last all day it will also involve their top teams who will be able to talk about putting plans into practice,” said the source.

However, one source said if the speculation was true about Clarkson’s potential involvement it did not bode well for the outcome.

“I have low expectations about what this will achieve,” the source said. “The feeling is the government will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

“When they start coughing about celebrities you know the way this is going to do.”

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said he hoped the event could see the PM agree to streamline regulation to help supermarkets keep prices down.

“Retailers will want government to commit to sustainable UK food production, that includes a coherent labour policy, more focus on carbon reduction, and minimising the financial impact of incoming regulations,” he said. “That includes reforms to extended producer responsibility, that might otherwise increase costs for consumers.”

The summit comes amid simmering tensions between supermarkets, suppliers, farmers and politicians.

The NFU first called for a food summit when Sunak attended an event last year. The organisation has called for a “reset” of the UK food system, including commitments to support farmers in future trade deals, setting targets for UK-based production to secure food security and a major campaign to advertising UK food and drink.

There have also been calls for the CMA to intervene on alleged supermarket “profiteering” from quarters including Labour and Liberal Democrats, amid speculation that the two may consider an electoral pact ahead of the next election, following heavy losses for the Tories in last week’s local elections.

Meanwhile, campaign groups, who are smarting at not being invited to the summit, have accused supermarkets of trying to hijack the agenda and expressed fears the government will dodge the “systematic” intervention they claim is needed.

Horticulture strategy

“The farmers and growers I hear from are astounded that the government intends to hold a food security summit just weeks after binning their own horticulture strategy,” said Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain.

“UK farmers are battling unfavourable financial and climate conditions and face uncertainty about how the government intend to support them. Significant numbers of our farmers have stopped planting.

“The government appears to have invited only a small group of food chain representatives to its food security summit – mostly from the private sector.

“But we have clearly seen the results of market failure this winter with empty shelves and farm businesses going to the wall. Supermarkets and middle men leave our farmers with, in the case of some produce, less than 1% of the profit. So, why is the government putting our food security into the hands of the private sector?

“No 10 would do well to remind themselves that food security is about access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. They can’t outsource this to big food manufacturers who sell huge amounts of junk food or supermarkets who leave our farmers with so little.

“The government needs a coherent plan that builds shorter supply chains that work better for our farmers and consumers.”

NFU president Minette Batters said: “We welcome No 10 and Defra delivering on the prime minister’s commitment he made to the NFU last year to host a food summit later this month.

“We are calling on government to make this an annual summit, which would mark a turning point in how previous governments have prioritised the safe and affordable supply of sustainably produced home-grown food.”

A government spokesperson said: “Our upcoming summit will bring together government and representatives from across the food supply chain to step up co-operation and promote all elements of our world-renowned farming and food industries.

“The event will look at how we can champion UK food and drink both at home and abroad by boosting confidence, helping more businesses to invest in domestic production and supporting the long-term resilience and sustainability of the UK food sector.”