Tesco has denied claims by the National Beef Association that a lack of British beef on shelves around Christmas was due to it prioritising “cheap” Irish beef imports.

Consumers in south west England contacted the retailer after finding much of the beef on sale over the festive period was not British. The NBA subsequently published Tesco’s response attributing the lack of British beef available to a “better quality” Irish product.

Tesco has since said the message quoted by the NBA was “given out in error”, stressing the British beef industry offered some of the “best quality” beef, while all beef available on its meat counters was British.

“There has been absolutely no change in our approach,” said a Tesco spokesman. “The amount of British beef we offer customers has not changed. We are proud supporters of the British beef industry and always offer customers 100% British and Irish beef year round.”

However, the statement had already prompted an angry reaction from NBA chief executive Chris Mallon, who demanded the retailer make a public apology for reputational damage caused to the British beef industry. He further called out Tesco for sourcing a “cheap substitute” to British beef, which was trading at an average of 45.2p/kg more than Irish equivalents in the week ending 18 December, according to the NBA.

“It is shameful for Tesco to blame the quality of British product for its absence on Tesco shelves,” said Mallon.

“The real reason is its buying policy prioritises cheapest first. It shows a complete disregard for Tesco’s UK suppliers to put out statements falsely informing consumers that British product is inferior.

“As we move to post-Brexit trading, the Tesco cheapest first policy will be destructive to British farmers and consumers. Its policy will reduce choice as British producers leave the industry after it has been swamped with food produced under standards unacceptable in the UK.”

It comes as data from the AHDB’s latest Beef & Lamb watch summary from November revealed that the amount of British beef on Tesco’s shelves had fallen by 11% compared with a year ago.

Mallon added that none of the beef producers he spoke to had experienced issues with quality in the run up to Christmas.

This is not the first time Tesco has fallen foul of UK meat producers over its sourcing of imported alternatives. It was “accused of shying away” from British lamb support last August, after British lamb facings in the retailer fell by 15% year on year [AHDB Beef & Lamb watch June 2017].

However, the retailer defended its sourcing policy, saying it was a “proud supporter” of the British lamb industry.