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A big hit to supplies of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil will top the agenda

Defra secretary George Eustice has announced he is recalling the industry ‘war room’ to tackle the threat of “long-term” supply shortages caused by the Ukraine conflict.

A big hit to supplies of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil will top the agenda of the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF), said Eustice, who also announced a sub-group of key producers and manufacturers had been set up to pool intelligence.

There have been growing calls to recall the body - chaired by former Nestlé head of supply chain Chris Tyas - which was set up at the height of the fears over food shortages when the pandemic first hit the UK two years ago.

Meanwhile, it is understood the government has agreed to suspend elements of labelling rules to allow retailers and suppliers to switch ingredients from sunflower oil to rapeseed oil without having to change labels.

The Grocer revealed last week that the industry was calling for the changes, which also echo moves made during the pandemic, though talks are said to be continuing on whether wider relaxing of labelling laws will be allowed to try to counter shortages in the supply chain caused by the war.

Announcing the reformation of FRIF, Eustice said: “It’s going to be meeting weekly but we’re also having lots of additional one-to-one conversations with key players. And there’s a sub-group of some of the key producers, key manufacturers that are also a separate group so we can make sure we’ve got the best intelligence.

“Our work to date does show that our import dependency on Ukraine is principally based around sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. It’s about 25% of our sunflower oil and 20% of rapeseed oil.”

The move to recall FRIF was welcomed by one member, who said: “It’s about time. FRIF was formed to try to secure food supplies in times of crisis and if this is not a crisis I don’t know what is.”

However, FDF CEO Karen Betts admitted there were doubts over how much support the government could give to industry. She said the changes to labelling laws were “more complicated” than during Covid.

“I think perhaps there is a slight wariness about what the industry is going to ask for at a time when the government coffers are pretty much bare,” she said.

“That’s why we need to be careful to try to frame the things we want to do right now as we look at the Ukraine crisis in a space where we’re not asking necessarily for money, but we’re asking for things that could at least remove costs elsewhere.

On the labelling talks, she added: “What we will really want is confirmation of a streamlined process whereby when the next ingredient is unavailable, we have a much quicker turnaround as to what other ingredients companies will be able to substitute.

“What is different about Ukraine [to Covid] is the possible long-term unavailability.

“With Covid, Defra and FSA moved quite quickly to understanding where we might need maybe a derogation. So where an ingredient wasn’t available in your, say, cereal bar, you could keep the label the same as long as the ingredient is either not in there or in there in a different quantity.

“It’s a different question around oil. You do get into questions of allergens and how would you communicate with the public about changed ingredients. So I think it is raising different and more complicated questions.”

At an industry roundtable hosted by the FDF last week it is understood concerns were raised that government rules on releasing information before elections could also prove a stumbling block to companies fighting to prevent shortages.

It is understood officials told sources it may be difficult to provide information on numbers of Ukrainian temporary workers in the UK because of the rules on purdah, which come in next week ahead of local elections in Northern Ireland.

A source said: “When the roundtable heard what Defra had said, there were howls of derision.”