Environment Secretary George Eustice’s comments came as shop prices increased at their fastest rate since September 2011.
04 May 2022
Shoppers should choose value brands in supermarkets to manage their household finances, a Cabinet minister suggested as Boris Johnson acknowledged the economy was going through a tough patch.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said chicken and other fresh produce was going up in price as producers faced increased costs.
He suggested that consumers could “contain and manage their household budget” by changing the brands they buy in shops.
Mr Eustice’s comments come as the latest figures show shop prices are up 2.7% on last year, marking their highest rate of inflation for more than a decade.
Food inflation accelerated to 3.5% in April, up from 3.3% in March, although fresh food inflation slowed slightly from 3.5% to 3.4% amid fierce competition between supermarkets which resisted price hikes on everyday essentials, according to the BRC-NielsenIQ Shop Price Index.
The squeeze on household finances is expected to get worse, with the CPI measure of inflation expected to hit a 40-year high of 8.7% in the final three months of the year, according to Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts.
Mr Eustice told Sky News that rising fertiliser and feed costs had hit the farming industry, partly as a result of soaring energy prices.
He said: “The better news is that we have a very, very competitive retail market with 10 big supermarkets and the four main ones competing very aggressively, particularly on some of the lower-cost, everyday value items for households, so things like spaghetti and ambient products – there’s a lot of competition to keep those prices down.
“Where it gets harder is on things like chicken and poultry, and some fresh produce, where those increased feed costs do end up getting passed through the system because these people work on wafer-thin margins and they have to pass that cost through.”
Mr Eustice said “generally speaking, what people find is by going for some of the value brands” or supermarket own-brand products “they can actually contain and manage their household budget”.
But he acknowledged “it will undoubtedly put a pressure on household budgets and, of course, it comes on top of those high gas prices as well”.
Opposition politicians condemned Mr Eustice’s remarks and the Prime Minister was challenged about the “patronising” comments during a broadcast interview.
Mr Johnson told reporters: “What we want to do is help people in any way that we can through the aftershocks of Covid.
“What you have got is inflationary spikes, mainly in energy, but that’s knocking on into all sorts of other costs for people, for families.”
He highlighted the Government’s £22 billion package of support, including £9 billion to help with energy bills, but said a shift to a “high-wage, high-skill” economy would be the best protection.
He insisted the country was better-placed than it was during previous inflation crises.
“The best future for the country is: Get through the tough patch we have now, support people in any way that we can, but remember we are now seeing a lot of employment and people in high-wage, high-skilled jobs.
“That’s a much better position to be in than we were in the 1980s or 1990s.”
Labour’s shadow Treasury chief secretary, Pat McFadden, described Mr Eustice’s comments as “woefully out of touch from a Government with no solution to the cost-of-living crisis facing working people”.
Mr McFadden added: “It’s time for the Government to get real help to people rather than comments that simply expose how little they understand about the real struggles people are facing to pay their bills.”
Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokeswoman Wendy Chamberlain said: “These comments show George Eustice and the Conservatives are living in a parallel universe.
“Families and pensioners who can’t afford their weekly shop need more help, not patronising advice from a clueless minister.”
However, Mr Eustice’s comments follow widespread advice to consumers trying to cope with the cost-of-living crisis to consider dropping a price level at the supermarket to save money.
Supermarkets separate their products into different categories, from the most expensive premium level through to progressively cheaper branded products, own brand and value lines.
The MoneySavingExpert (MSE) site suggests those struggling with food costs try the “Downshift Challenge” by swapping one of everything to something just one brand level lower, explaining: “If you can’t tell the difference between the lower brand level goods, then why pay more for it?”
MSE said downshifting typically cuts grocery bills by 30%.