Supermarket shelves are empty, and social media is littered with people slamming businesses for hiking their prices and taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak.

Some posts have gone as far as claiming that Asian supermarkets have been fined thousands of pounds by Trading Standards. Many are also calling for boycotts of the stores who they believe have taken advantage.

So, what is the truth? Are people being ‘ripped’ off and taken advantage of during challenging times? Or have prices in the supply chain really gone up, that retailers must pass on to the consumer?

Is the consumer being taken advantage of during the coronavirus pandemic?

Are retailers selling at inflated prices?

Asian Sunday Investigates

The majority of the complaints sent by Asian Sunday readers seem to focus around halal meat at the Asian supermarkets, so this report primarily focuses on the cost of halal meat and poultry. Our Editor Fatima Patel chose to visit six of Bradford’s leading and established Asian supermarkets. They are Haqs in Listerhills (now under new management believed to be Kanapeena), Saveco Supermarket in Thornbury, Pakeezah Supermarket off Leeds Road, Al-Halal (Worldwide) supermarket on Shearbridge Road and Manchester Superstore on Planetrees Road.

First stop on Friday evening 20 March started with Al-Halal supermarket. The place was heaving as expected, with some shelves looking empty, however all the fruit and vegetable areas were fully stocked as was the fridge with milk yoghurt and butter.

The meat and chicken counters had queues of people too, and supply also seemed decently available. The meat and chicken counter had pricing clearly labelled, with lamb leg/shoulder at £10.99 per kg, Sheep mix at £6.99 per kg, Sheep Chops at £7.99 per kg and chicken boneless leg at £4.99 per kg. Manchester Superstore, Pakeezah supermarket, Kanapeena and Saveco were not far behind on these prices. Some were slightly higher due to the nature of whether the meat and poultry was HMC certified or not and perhaps also due to the quality of cut.

Even the Halal counter at Tesco on Great Horton Road was selling their Halal lamb shoulder at £11.50 per kilo. So clearly prices had increased across the board with retailers.

Meat prices at Worldwide supermarket

The main and perhaps the only Halal meat wholesaler in the north of England is Yorkshire Halal Meats. In a statement they said that as a result of high demand due to the coronavirus outbreak meat prices have invariably had to go up.

Meat traders claim that there are many factors why the price of meat has risen exponentially. To start with its lambing season, which means generally there is less lamb from January till around May time, resulting in peak lamb prices. To add to this due to the coronavirus outbreak this has increased demand for meat

Farmers Weekly reports that ‘frantic buying at livestock markets amid the coronavirus has seen new-season lambs hit 300p/kg, with national averages up £32 a head on the year.’

Their article dated 18 March states that ‘old-season lamb SQQs rose to 251p/kg on Monday – up more than 50p/kg on the year – and a small entry of new-season lambs averaged 295p/kg.’

However, the article also says that auctioneers believe high prices could be short-lived once people have filled up their freezers.

One retailer who didn’t want to be named said: “Retailers can’t shop around as they are being held to ransom by wholesalers.”

In respect to poultry suppliers, Gafoor Poultry are said to be the largest suppliers and for most of our retailers the only wholesale suppliers of halal poultry in the north of England. Asian Sunday tried to contact Gafoor Poultry, but no one was available for comment.

On 17 March however a Blackburn based Asian newspaper quoted Gafoor Poultry as saying that they “are not increasing any prices.”

The newspaper reported that they had ‘quelled rumours, that the price of chicken had gone up and confirmed to the paper stating, “Nobody is trying to take advantage of anyone due to the coronavirus. We want to support the community.”

Asian Sunday was shown a letter dated 18 March, sent by Gafoor Poultry to their customers, informing them that ‘prices have increased sharply in the last week and are expected to rise further due to uncertainty in world markets with weakening  exchange rates due to coronavirus developments.’

It was clear from the invoices seen by Asian Sunday that wholesalers had increased prices and as a result many of the supermarkets had to pass the increases on.

Saveco said in a statement: “Like many companies, we are facing many unprecedented challenges, such as interruptions in our supply line, shortage of stocks, etc.”

“Wherever possible we will not be raising our prices to take advantage of this unprecedented situation in the event that prices have been raised drastically by our supply chain and where we see no viable alternative, you may see an increase in price on some products but we will try to keep this at a minimum and only where absolutely necessary.”

Saveco showed Asian Sunday recent purchase invoices from wholesalers for meat, poultry and fruit and veg purchases, which clearly demonstrated the price rises.

Worldwide Foods, also known as Al-Halal supermarket had a similar view. A spokesperson for the retailer told Asian Sunday: “People are rightly upset and angry about the rise in prices, but so are we, as we too have been affected with price increases from our suppliers, but what can we do, we need stock and sadly have to pass the price on.”

On being questioned about why prices in the four mainstream supermarkets have been able to fix their prices, while ethnic retailers have not the Asian retailer said: “This is because suppliers for multibillion corporations are generally tied to long-term contracts at fixed prices while we are considered ‘spot buyers’.

Yoghurt, milk and butter in plenty of stock at Asian Supermarkets

“While this has given us the ability to maneuver and stock groceries at bargain prices for more than 30 years in operation, it also means that at times of crisis, we can be handicapped with products being sold at the market value or more when stock is nowhere else to be found.”

Social media was also rife with news that supermarkets had been fined by Trading Standards.

Al-Halal was listed as being fined £30,000 by one post and £10,000 by another. Al-Halal spokesperson said: “We complied with trading authorities on 17 March at our head office and left them satisfied by producing invoices and valid documentations from suppliers establishing our sincerity and transparency. Worldwide Foods is trying to absorb the rising costs as much as possible, as the virus and shutdown of Europe takes its toll.”

Trading Standards have not issued any statements or releases confirming fines on supermarkets and Asian Sunday will continue to follow up for a comment.

It’s doesn’t take much to conclude that both retailers and wholesalers have had price increases and as a result this has been passed down to the consumer. However, there is no clear answer as to whether the consumer is being over charged and taken advantage of during covid-19 outbreak.

What is important to note though is that meat and poultry prices are constantly changing and the retail outlets we are buying from may well have bought at a different time to another resulting in varying prices. One business may also be run more efficiently with lower overheads and operating costs than the other. There are many factors to consider.

Many trader news outlets suggest that we should reasonably expect prices to be about 20-50 per cent higher than normal and that this should only remain the case for the next week or so if consumers start buying at their normal rate and not continue to panic buy.

If consumers do feel that prices are unnecessarily inflated then they can report the business to the Competition & Markets Authority who will carry out a detailed assessment and naturally if proven then the business will be named and fined, and reported in the media.

Asian Sunday urges its readers not to panic buy. Consumer buying patterns can also dictate prices, and panic-buying and hoarding creates a reaction within the supply chain leading to price changes, so panic buying should be stopped immediately.

According to reports there is now over a billion pounds more food in households than in shops and so it’s vital during such times that we do not waste any of those purchases and put them to good use.

We waste on average about one-third of food produced for human consumption globally, and each family wastes around £470 per year on food. Let’s hope our bins don’t go full of, waste food over the next few weeks.

To conclude, among the wholesalers, retailers and consumers, no one seems to be winning against the Covid-19 virus and challenges are being faced by ALL. Which means there is only one thing that needs to be said here – we are all in this TOGETHER.