fruit & veg empty shelves

A meeting staged between food minister Mark Spencer and supermarket CEOs was instead attended by middle management after retailers were angered by government messaging.

Retail bosses are understood to have been irritated by headlines at the weekend saying they were being ‘hauled in front’ of Spencer to explain shortages of fruit & veg in supermarkets in recent weeks.

Further frustration is said to have arisen from Defra sending invitations to the wrong people, including M&S’s going to the retailer’s former CEO Steve Rowe instead of Stuart Machin, who took over last June.

It is understood the headlines generated in advance of Monday’s meeting were taken by retailers to be Defra’s principal aim in organising it. As a result, expectations of what could be achieved were low, “which will explain why some retailers chose not to send their CEO”, a source told The Grocer.

The source said most in attendance were “not director level” and “little came from the meeting”.

“People had been scrambling around trying to work out who had got the invitations.

“Two things came out of it: an urging for greater support by the government and a reassuring that we are getting shit sorted out from the retailers.

“There were hints of discussing wider issues – I think the government is worried about an exodus of British farmers from the sector – but no firm actions came out of it.”

However, the meeting was followed by an assurance from the BRC that shortages would begin to ease in the coming weeks.

“Retailers were able to remind government how hard they are working to address the current challenges on fresh produce and confirmed that customers should start to see an improvement in the coming weeks,” said BRC director of food & sustainability Andrew Opie.

“While the majority of food sold in supermarkets comes from the UK, there remains a key role for imported food, particularly outside of the UK growing season, to maintain the supply of affordable food for UK households.

“Retailers also acknowledged the importance of food security, but noted that this requires a wider strategy involving government, farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and hospitality.”

Read more: Why fruit & veg shortages are only a tiny bit about Brexit

Food minister Mark Spencer said: “Shoppers need to know that our food supply chain is extremely resilient, as we saw during Covid-19, with our retailers and farmers working hard day-in, day-out to keep the nation fed.

“I spoke to retailers today to hear from them direct about the important work they’re doing to respond to and alleviate the current short-term issues.

“I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit & vegetables, so they can further build our preparedness for these unexpected incidents, and welcome their commitment to working with government and farmers on longer-term solutions.”

Lidl yesterday became the latest supermarket to impose limits on purchases of some fruit & veg, following Aldi, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda.

A Lidl spokeswoman said the decision to impose a limit of three items per person on peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers had been made “due to a recent increase in demand”.

The shortages have been blamed by retailers on difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa, while the NFU has pointed to production costs for UK growers rising faster than the prices paid by supermarkets, leading to a contraction of production.

Meanwhile the government has been accused of failing to take heed of calls from farming for support with soaring costs.