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Households have been warned that the ‘golden age’ of cheap food in the UK is over as official figures released on Friday highlighted the cost of the cost of living crisis, with two in five people buying less food to get by.

Former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King said shoppers now face tough choices over how to spend their money as the financial shock, caused by the war in Ukraine, drives up prices on store shelves. supermarkets.

“We may have been through a golden era,” said King, a senior retail industry executive who also sits on the board of Marks & Spencer. That should now change, he added, as people are forced to rethink their family budget priorities.

“I suspect what we’ll see is a higher proportion, overall, spent on longer-term food.”

Graphic: food price inflation

His concerns have been echoed by retail and agriculture figures as households brace for a spike in inflation.

Economists believe official statistics next Wednesday will show headline prices rose 9% in April, while the Bank of England expects the rate to rise to 10% later this year, the highest since 1982.

The head of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents all major supermarkets, agreed that “consumers are going through a difficult time”. Global food prices are at a record high, propelled by rising energy and transport costs, as well as an extremely tight labor market, its chief executive Helen Dickinson said.

Fierce competition between supermarkets has so far limited price increases on essentials, but Dickinson said pressures in the food industry “don’t appear to be easing anytime soon”.

Bar chart: reasons for the rising cost of living

The cost of living crisis is already forcing people to make big changes. Two in five adults buy less food when shopping, according to the latest Public Opinion and Social Trends survey released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday. The figure is double the reading at the start of 2022.

Nine in 10 adults surveyed told the ONS their spending was higher this month than a year ago. When first asked the question in November, only 62% of adults said this was the case. The top three concerns were food and energy bills, and the price at the pump.

People were cutting back on non-essential spending, trying to use less electricity and heating, and avoiding unnecessary car trips. They had also started shopping more for the cheapest prices. Two in five did not think they would be able to save money in the next 12 months.

The sky-high prices were forcing people to make “really horrific financial decisions”, said Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown. The number of people having to spend less on food was “alarming”, she added. “It’s no wonder a third of us are so anxious.”

Poll: 88% say the cost of living has increased in the past month

Coles said the ONS survey showed “alarm bells ringing about food”. “The proportion buying less is increasing, and while this will include some people foregoing expensive treats or reducing waste, there is a real risk that some will go hungry.”

A study for the Guardian carried out by price analysts Assosia last month showed sharp increases in the cost of everyday food, with the price of basic pasta up 45%, tomatoes and tinned eggs by 13% and dog food up more than 40% in the past year. Official data indicates an increase of nearly 20% in the price of a pint of milk.

Food producers from pig farmers to cucumber growers have been warning for months that a spike in the cost of energy and commodities, such as wheat and cooking oil, is driving up their costs and that they should be passed on.

Last week the National Pig Association said four in five producers would close within a year unless their finances improve, with farmers losing more than £50 per pig. Hundreds of egg farmers are also facing collapse as rising fuel and energy costs have been exacerbated by the added cost of keeping hens indoors during an outbreak of bird flu.

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said egg, chicken and pork producers were among those operating at a loss due to soaring farm costs. Prices for energy, fuel, feed and packaging were all “skyrocketing”, she said. “For all those input costs, whether it’s packaging or feed, we’re seeing rising inflation. It costs more, much more, to produce food than it can be sold.

“The question is how do we receive fair returns for everyone and ensure that the consumer can still afford to buy,” she added. “The danger is that if you put all those costs on the consumer, will they be able to afford to buy it?”

King told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that supermarkets could not be expected to fully absorb additional costs or shield consumers from rising prices, despite announcing higher revenues. students. Last month, Tesco and Sainsbury’s announced a doubling of their annual pre-tax profits to £2bn and £730m respectively.

“Overall profit figures are of course important in the context of any family budget,” King said. “But the margins in supermarkets are around 3%. So even if the supermarkets weren’t making any profit, they couldn’t really make a huge dent in the cost inflation that runs through the system.

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The war in Ukraine added to the problems that were already piling up in the food industry due to the upheavals caused by the pandemic and Brexit as well as harvesting problems linked to the climate crisis. The recent heat wave in India and dry spells in parts of the United States, for example, which are both major grain producers, have contributed to soaring wheat prices around the world, alongside the squeeze exports and reduced production in Ukraine.

Richard Griffiths, head of the British Poultry Council, which represents the producers of 85% of the chicken sold in the UK, said he saw “no easy way for food prices to come down”.

“We have seen increases in production costs, which means we expect food inflation of 15%,” he said. “It’s not just rising energy prices, it’s rising feed and labor costs, the effects of Brexit on trade. If it s’ is one of them, it can be manageable and recoverable, but since it is all of them, it makes life more and more difficult.

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