‘Government must protect food security and provide cost-of-living help’

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Co-op Food chief executive Jo Whitfield
Whitfield: “This is a moment for the government to get food security in the UK to a really great place.”
// The Co-op Food boss Jo Whitfield called on the Government to do more to support British farmers to improve national food security amid food shortages due to the Ukraine war
// Whitfield also said the government should remove friction for grocery retailers as it focused on keeping prices low for shoppers during the cost-of-living crisis

The Co-op Food boss Jo Whitfield has urged the government to do more to protect national food security and to provide more support to the grocery industry as it grapples with quelling price rises for consumers.

Whitfield told Retail Week Live that the Ukraine war had highlighted how reliant the UK is on other countries for its food and urged the government to do more to ensure we are “self-sufficient”.

She said: “The whole Russia-Ukraine crisis has reinforced this point about food insecurity and where our food comes from and how reliant we are on certain parts of the world for certain commodities.

“In a frictionless environment it flows, but when you have an interruption event as traumatic as Ukraine-Russia, it really puts pressure in the system, it really challenges where we get our food from in the UK.”

Whitfield urged the government to ensure British farmers are given more support, which could allow retailers like The Co-op to source and create more food in the UK.

“This is a moment for the government to think what do we want to do long term to get food security in the UK to a really great place,” she said.

She also urged the goverment to do what it can to help grocers who are “managing our costs incredibly tightly” during the cost-of-living crisis.

Whitfield pleaded for ministers to make life easier for grocers during this period and to pause the introduction of new policy changes.

“There’s been a real perfect storm for us over the past couple of years,” said Whitfield. “There’s been so much friction for retail around Covid and Brexit.

“If the government could just take a breath on some of the policy change that it wants to implement it could give everyone a little time to adjust to the new conditions.

“It would allow us to docus on what we need to do for our customers and our colleagues, really cleanly.”

READ MORE: From Tesco to Superdrug: how retailers are tackling the big pricing problem

The grocery sector is trying to minimise food inflation for customers amid rising living costs across the board, from energy to fuel.

Whitfield admitted that food inflation of 10% was “not unlikely by the end of the year”.

“The real question for all of us is where will it settle and how much of it is structural, how much of it is temporary? We’re going to work as hard as we can to make sure that as things come back down we reflect that as quickly as we can.”

Iceland boss Richard Walker pointed out that the 7% food inflation figure is a median figure and some essential products are rising at a much higher rate.

“The reality, as Jack Monroe has pointed out, is if you’re on the breadline and have 25 quid a week to spend on food, with base foods it’s much higher than that.”

Walker said that Iceland sold four pints of milk for £1 a year ago, which it now charges £1.29 for, a price he highlighted it makes no margin on.

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