Supermarket bosses defend retail-grower relationships at EFRA Committee inquiry

Supermarket senior executives defended their fresh produce buying practices and pledged their keen support of British growers when giving evidence to a cross-party parliamentary committee investigating fairness in the food supply chain.

Representatives from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Waitrose faced questions on food price inflation, profits and relationships with producers from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee at the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday (30 April) as part of EFRA’s ongoing inquiry.

In this fourth evidence session, MPs posed questions based on testimony given at a former hearing by BAPL’s Ali Capper and Riverford’s Guy Singh-Watson about supermarket buying-behaviour and retail practices.

Lidl GB chief commercial officer Richard Bourns said he did not recognise the allegation made by Capper that supermarkets had delisted top fruit producers based on inflationary price pressure.

He said Lidl was committed to buying British and had the largest index of any retailer for sales of British apples and pears.

Bourns stressed Lidl’s close relationship with British suppliers, citing Kent grower AC Hulme as supplying more than 50 per cent of Lidl’s apples and pears.

Responding to claims that rising production costs had not been reflected in higher returns to growers, Tesco commercial director for fresh food Dom Morrey said that the past 18 months had been a “very dynamic and challenging time right across the supply base” that had led to “unprecedented discussions around price”.

Bourns, meanwhile, said Lidl was in “clear, open dialogue with producers” to track input costs and adjust prices to accurately reflect the challenges they were facing.

Morrey then countered claims made by Singh-Watson of supermarket bullying practices, stating that many British growers had been supplying Tesco for over 25 years.

He cited potato producer Branston as a major Tesco supplier with whom the retailer was having “live discussions” about the challenging season. “In every case we seek long-term contracts with growers,” he said.

Kris Comerford, chief commercial officer (food) for Asda, said Asda would take any allegation of bullying seriously.

He added that supermarkets were prevented from bullying suppliers by the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

The witnesses were then pressed on supermarket profits in the context of the high food price environment, and later asked about the rise in supermarkets selling “fake farm brands” in store.

Morrey defended Tesco’s ‘farm’ brands as way of bringing ”value items to life in terms of being more redolent of the supply base where it comes from”.

Bourns told the committee categorically that Lidl did not use farm brands as EFRA chairman Robert Goodwill, who had access to the internet, read out Strathvale Farm Scottish chicken from the Lidl website.