FoE tackles retailers over fruit supplies

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Apple, Supermarket, Uk

Friends of the Earth (FoE), the perennial thorn in the side of the
leading British supermarket groups, has criticised the two biggest
retailers, Tesco and Asda, over their fruit supply contracts.

FoE claimed that both stores were importing the majority of their apples at the height of the UK apple season, belying their claims to be strong supporters of British farmers. A survey carried out by Friends of the Earth, appears to show that some of the fruit on sale in British supermarkets travels more than 20,000 km to reach the shelves - a fact all the more disconcerting, FoE said, given the fact that this year's home grown crop is one of the best for many years.

The average proportion of UK grown apples in Asda and Tesco stores was 38 per cent, the survey showed. In contrast, greengrocers provided 46 per cent of UK apples. Some 16 per cent of the apples on sale in the supermarkets were imported from outside the EU including from the US, New Zealand, Chile, Australia, South Africa and Canada.

As is traditional for the lobby group, FoE has accused the retailers of abusing their dominant position and has called on the government to put pressure on the supermarket majors to make a firm commitment to sourcing more in-season fruit and vegetables from British farmers - and to paying them a fair price for it.

FoE wants the government's supermarket Code of Practice to be updated to "stop unfair trading practices such as late payments of invoices and charging growers for changes in the supermarket's packaging specifications"​ and is also calling for an independent supermarket watchdog to protect both consumer and producer interests.

"Smaller suppliers, including many UK farmers and growers, are least able to cope with unreasonable demands from the supermarkets,"​ said Liz Wright, food campaigner at FoE. "Friends of the Earth wants the government to give more support to local food initiatives to help growers set up direct marketing ventures."

Burdening the retail sector with more red tape will not be welcomed by the industry, which has frequently been accused of building its profits at the expense of its suppliers.

Obliging retailers to source locally is almost certain to be anti-competitive, and in any case, all previous investigations of the reatil sector by the UK government have found nothing unusual in its business practices - which means the FoE's calls are likely, once again, to fall on deaf ears.

She continued: "The big supermarkets are using their market power to source cheap produce around the world, pushing UK growers and local shops out of business. The government must stop supermarkets abusing their powerful position. If this trend continues, UK apples could end up as a niche market with the majority of apples coming from overseas - causing transport-related pollution,"​ she concluded.

But FoE's survey also showed that the retailers were not always the cheapest place to buy fresh fruit, either. Markets stalls were found to be the cheapest place to buy apples.

While the retail sector has frequently been accused of building its profits at the expense of suppliers, the government's own official investigation into supermarkets' business practices found little cause for concern.

FoE's calls for retailers to somehow be obliged to source locally are unlikely to be heeded, not least because such a move would almost certainly be ruled as anti-competitive, but the FoE's findings could still prove damaging to the retailers, who pride themselves (and, more importantly, spend a lot of money advertising the fact) on their support for UK producers.

Asda disagrees

Asda responded fiercely to FoE's claim's that it was failing to support UK apple producers. "This season we're up over 20 per cent in terms of our British apple sales compared to last year. Cox is nearer 30 per cent,"​ spokesman Nick Agarwal told FoodandDrinkEurope.com

"We've been particularly concerned in recent years at a drop in Cox consumption - still the main English dessert variety. That's why this year it's had special treatment in our stores: more shelf space; front of store positioning; each crate had a Union Jack liner to ensure that all customers knew it was English.

"The retail price for Cox has been kept low while paying growers a return based on a higher retail price. On top of this we also had an English Cox sampling day on October 26 across every Asda store."

Agarwal also defended the company's record on sourcing locally - which FoE highlighted as poor when it came to apples. "We are also aware of the demand for 'local' produce and, as such, 90 per cent of our English apples sold in our 11 Kent stores are grown in Kent.

"The local fruit is recognisable by the 'Produced in Kent' liners and the stickers on the apple bags, and we also teamed up with the 'Kent on Sunday' newspaper to advertise the fact that we were selling local apples.

"Obviously, you can only sell local apples in stores which are local to apple orchards, and we will be looking to expand the 'local' initiative to the West Midlands and Wisbech, where fruit is also grown for Asda stores."

FoE also accused Asda of going abroad to find alternative varieties when the UK could supply a vast array of apples, but Agarwal said that this was simply not true.

"Whilst Cox remains the number one UK dessert variety there are a further 13 UK dessert varieties sold in Asda stores - Discovery, Worcester, Early Windsor, Spartan, Red Pippin, Jonagold, Lord Lambourne, Elstar, Egremont Russet and Red Falstaff (a new English variety), English Gala and English Braeburn.

"This is our first season selling English Braeburn which is a recent variety for UK growers. This will be sold as 'local' Kent apples in the Kent stores later this year."

Agarwal also defended Asda's track record on supporting British farmers as a whole, calling it "second to none"​.

"We are committed to buying British wherever possible (subject to availability, quality and food safety) and increasing the volume of British meat and produce that we sell to our customers.

Ninety per cent of the fresh food we sell that we can source from Britain, we do source from Britain. Furthermore, 100 per cent of our fresh chicken and turkey is British, 95 per cent of our fresh lamb is British, 90 per cent of our fresh pork is British, and 80 per cent of our fresh beef is British. Last year we sold 720 million pints of milk - all of it British."

Related topics: Market Trends

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