Sunday, April 02, 2023
The battle won't be over until food inflation slumps
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

My regular column is available to subscribers on This is an excerpt. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Some statistics still have the capacity to shock, even after all the turbulence of recent years. One such shocker was the latest reading for food price inflation. In February, food prices were up by 18.3 per cent on a year earlier, which is extraordinary. Add in non-alcoholic beverages (though we all need a drink after figures like that) and the rise was 18 per cent.

Why such a shocker? If I tell you that the rise in food prices over the past 12 months has been as much as the cumulative increase over the previous 11 years and four months, you get the idea of the extent to which current food price inflation is off the scale.

And, while energy price inflation has grabbed the headlines, and in February for households was a massive 88.6 per cent, the surge in food prices is a reminder that this has been the nastiest of bouts of high inflation, honing in on the things that people cannot do without; keeping warm and eating.

Central bankers tend to look at “core” inflation, which excludes energy and food, and which is running at 6.2 per cent. But it is overall inflation that matters to people and businesses, and when it is driven by energy and food it is painful. Not until they have come back down to earth can inflation be said to have been beaten.

It is reasonable to expect energy price inflation to subside, both because the government has extended the energy price freeze until the summer, maintaining average bills at £2,500 a year until then, and because international gas prices have fallen.

Food price inflation remains an enigma, however, not just because it is so high but also because, if the British Retail Consortium (BRC) is right, it has yet to reach a peak. The BRC, using a slightly different measure to the official figures, says food price inflation accelerated to 15 per cent in March from 14.6 per cent in February, with fresh food inflation up from 16.3 per cent to a new record of 17 per cent.

I could have done this myself, with a little foresight, but I am grateful to TradingPedia for giving some examples of higher food prices, in this case at Tesco, last month compared with March 2022. The highlights included a 60 per cent increase in the price of Tesco’s mild cheddar, a 67 per cent rise for noodles and 57 per cent for half a dozen medium-sized eggs. Not everything went up as much, plainly, though it is is striking that some of the biggest increases in supermarket food prices have been in low value items.

Why is it happening? The Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly been a prime factor, pushing up the cost of energy and reducing the supply on to world markets not just of grain and other agricultural products but also fertiliser.

Higher energy prices have added to the cost of packaging and transport. The pound, while much stronger than it was during Liz Truss’s turbocharged turbulence last autumn, remains generally weaker against the dollar and euro, adding to import costs. Poor European weather may have been a factor in recent weeks. Brexit is said by many to be an additional explanation, though the UK’s food price inflation is only a little higher than the eurozone’s 17.3 per cent.

There remain a couple of puzzles. The first is that we have come to regard the UK’s supermarket sector as highly competitive, reinforced by the arrival and rapid expansion of the German low-cost chains, Aldi and Lidl. Even in the recent past, whenever food price inflation threatened to be gaining strength, it was brought back down by supermarket price wars. The supermarkets, it was said, lacked pricing power in this environment, because there was always a competitor that most shoppers could switch to. That lack of pricing power meant that they frequently put the squeeze on suppliers.

Thus, in the 10 years leading up to this episode, food price inflation averaged just 0.8 per cent annually. Low food inflation was a factor keeping overall inflation under control, whereas now it is a factor driving it higher.

The second puzzle is that, while much of the current food price inflation has been driven by international factors, the global picture has changed quite significantly over the past year. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) produces a monthly index for world food prices. How much do you think it has gone up over the past year? The answer is that it has not. It has, in fact, fallen sharply.

In February, the index was 18.7 per cent lower than in March 2022, the peak, with the latest monthly fall explained by lower prices for vegetable oils, dairy, cereals and meat, partly offset by a rise in the sugar price. The index has moved in exactly the opposite direction to UK food prices, and by a similar magnitude.

So what is going on? The supermarkets, it seems, have rediscovered some pricing power, benefiting from an environment in which shoppers have come to expect prices to rise. They will insists that they operate on wafer-thin margins but any sign that they have been profiteering could be met with a backlash. There have already been murmurings, with more than 30 MPs signing an early day motion a few weeks ago calling for “urgent regulatory action to tackle the plague of excessive corporate profiteering by UK supermarkets”

Such action is unlikely, not least because we should be close to the peak in food price inflation. The read-across from global food commodity prices to retail prices is not perfect; often big increases in commodity prices only have a limited impact on final prices. But a situation in which the cost of global commodities is falling sharply, alongside the highest UK food inflation since the late 1970s, does not look sustainable.

For this reason and others, food price inflation should be close to its peak. Lower international energy prices will also help, though the fact that there is no end in sight to the war in Ukraine does not.

The government needs food inflation to fall, even though prices themselves may have reached a new plateau from which price falls will be limited. Rishi Sunak has set a target of halving inflation by the end of the year. But if this happens while food inflation remains in double figures, it will be seen by voters as the most Pyrrhic of victories and a sign that the cost-of-living crisis is far from over. If this is not the last hurrah for sharply rising food prices, it is not just the government which has a problem.