26 July 2023
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Food price inflation – unpicking opportunism from macro-economics

To The Point
(3 min read)

Governments, trade bodies and competition authorities in the UK and EU have been increasingly concerned over the ongoing cost of living crisis and the continuous price increases in the groceries sector. To that extent, they are investigating both macro-economic price pressures, as well as pressures deriving from opportunistic behaviour from grocers, and concerns about "greedflation". Everyone  in the grocery supply chain in the UK and EU have attracted increased scrutiny over pricing policies and can also face enforcement action, in cases where food prices are kept artificially high.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has y been active in investigating how competition in grocery has been affecting food prices, while also exploring consumers' ability to identify the best available prices. In an update published last week, CMA said that there is important competitive pressure to product prices as input prices fall, although high food price inflation doesn’t appear to be driven by weak retail competition. To ensure consumers can effectively compare prices, CMA also published a review of the retailers' compliance to the unit pricing system. According to Sarah Cardell, CMA's CEO, retailers must make the necessary changes to display prices clearly, allowing consumers to easily compare different prices, or risk facing enforcement action. In the next phase of its probe, CMA will investigate on competition and prices across the sector's supply chain for 10 indicative product categories. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak  also explored the potential for UK supermarkets to agree on voluntary price caps – though that pressure may have eased as food inflation has begun to slow.

Looking at other factors specific to the UK, the post-Brexit border strategy, known as the target operating model (TOM) was recently highlighted as a risk of further increasing food prices, according to representatives of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC). TOM's draft includes extra charges imposed for import checks on goods that enter the UK from foreign countries and introduced in 2024, and businesses in the food supply chain warn of not being able to cope with this extra cost. The import charges are estimated to create an added annual cost of roughly £10m, which will potentially be passed on to consumers, further increasing food inflation. The final border strategy is expected to be released in the coming weeks. 

There is divergence across the EU on the benefits of intervention.  In Ireland, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) published the results of a high-level analysis it conducted on the country's grocery retail sector, highlighting that recent price increases have caused "real stress" on multiple households, and that food prices remain high, particularly compared to other countries. Nevertheless, in commenting on  several interventions that were implemented internationally to cope with the grocery sector's inflation, the CCPC expressed some scepticism, noting that that these interventions have thus far failed to benefit consumers and that, in most cases, they carry significant risk through "intended consequences that may harm consumers".  Its report also observed the positive benefits of deregulation over the years which resulted in increased competition. 

Elsewhere in the EU, states have also been exploring the impact of factors outside of macro-economic price pressures, with France introducing the "anti-inflation quarter" last March. Lasting until the end of last June, it was an agreement between the government and 75 food retailers to set the "lowest price possible" in a wide range of products, due to signs that raw material prices paid by the industry had been falling. In a move that was estimated to cost retailers several hundred million euros, grocers were asked to reverse price increases in several own-branded products, on which they have better control, after recent studies showed that the price of these products has been increasing at a faster pace compared to the rate of grocery inflation. Grocers were also threatened with financial sanctions for failing to tame price increases for products with decreased wholesale costs, according to French finance minister Bruno Le Maire. From the end of last June, retailers were able to negotiate prices with suppliers again. 

To the Point 

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