The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has claimed Boris Johnson asked him for an “emergency” deal to ease shortages of an unspecified food product, amid concerns about further disruption to supermarket supplies.
A lack of drivers and food pickers, as well as carbon dioxide used to stun animals for slaughter and create dry ice to keep food fresh, has led to fears that some goods will be missing from shelves in the run-up to Christmas.
Downing Street has urged people not to panic-buy, after the announcement by BP that there may be a lack of fuel at some petrol stations and the managing director of Iceland supermarket warned food supplies could come under threat within days, not weeks.
Government insiders worry about a return to the days leading up to the first coronavirus lockdown, where shelves were left bare as people stockpiled items such as toilet roll.
Bolsonaro made the claim about Johnson’s request after a meeting between them in New York earlier this week at the UN general assembly. The prime minister had stressed the benefits of the Covid-19 vaccine to his Brazilian counterpart.
During his weekly live broadcast on social media on Thursday night, Bolsonaro said: “[One] thing I talked to Boris Johnson about was that he wants an emergency deal with us to import some kind of produce of ours, of which there are shortages in England.
“It just goes to show that everyone’s struggling with inflation after this ‘stay at home, we’ll deal with the economy later’ business – and some countries are facing food shortages,” he continued, using the supposed request from Johnson to justify rising inflation in Brazil, which experts say is the result of political and economic instability and a severe energy crisis that is affecting the South American country.
“I’ve passed this potato on to Mrs Tereza Cristina,” Bolsonaro added, in reference to Brazil’s agriculture minister.
He also claimed Johnson had asked him to facilitate whiskey imports into Brazil during their meeting in New York. “I’m going to get in trouble with the press here – but it doesn’t matter,” Bolsonaro said.
“When I started chatting to Boris Johnson he talked about whiskey – and asked me what I could do to make it easier to import whiskey to Brazil. Look, it’s not one of my priorities – making it easy to bring whiskey into Brazil. This isn’t something that the government should be working on … it’s the market that regulates these things.”
It is understood the UK government regards the claim that Johnson asked for any help with food supplies as untrue. Publicly, No 10 has issued a more diplomatic retort, saying Bolsonaro’s claims do not tally with Downing Street’s recollection of events. Other senior government sources admitted being taken completely by surprised by the Brazilian president’s claim.
One Foreign Office official cast doubt on Bolsonaro’s credibility, and said the prime minister had probably made a warm-hearted but not serious remark about wanting to increase the imports of a particular Brazilian produce to boost the chances of his counterpart agreeing to help drive up the export of whiskey.
Some have speculated the food Brazil could be helpful with supplying is turkeys, after UK poultry producers said serious staff shortages caused by Brexit could mean there would not be enough of the birds to go around this Christmas.
Brazil has become one of the world’s top turkey meat producers over the last two decades, with production soaring from to a record 442,000 tons per year in 2012, according to the industry website Canal Rural. Production has since fallen from that peak, to 159,000 tons last year, about 26% of which was exported. But the South American country remains one of the world’s leading producers.
On Thursday, Johnson’s deputy spokesperson said fuel and food had a “very resilient supply chain” in the UK. They urged people not to change their behaviour, and stressed: “People should continue to buy it as usual.”
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, vowed to “move heaven and earth” to solve the nationwide shortage of truck drivers. Asked about the Petrol Retailers Association warning drivers to keep a quarter of a tank of fuel in their car in case forecourts ran out, he downplayed the issue and said motorists should “carry on as normal” and not panic-buy.