The UK government has rejected the case for restricting price increases on essential foods despite rising inflation and is calling for an investigation into supermarket “gouging”.

Mark Spencer, the minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, ruled out asking retailers and producers to stop raising prices just weeks after food inflation hit its highest level in more than 45 years.

Spencer said it was “not for the government to set retail prices or comment on companies’ day-to-day business decisions” in response to a parliamentary question on Thursday.

However, he added, government officials would continue to work with businesses to ensure food was affordable.

His comments stand in stark contrast to actions taken by France, which reached an agreement with food retailers in March to set the “lowest possible price” on certain products for three months. This week supermarkets agreed to extend these efforts, said Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister.

UK supermarkets, meanwhile, have been accused by some MPs and unions of “profit making” and failing to rein in rising prices. The cost of food has skyrocketed 19.2 percent in the year to March with strong increases in almost all categories.

The bosses of the biggest supermarket chains have said, however, that they are not raising prices in step with general inflation and that their profit margins are slim.

Tim Farron, a Liberal Democrat MP and environment spokesman, accused the minister on Friday of a “terribly shameful and ruthless dereliction of duty” at a time when families were struggling to put food on the table.

Farron urged Spencer to demand that the competition watchdog launch an investigation into the “shameless profiteering” of supermarkets and extend free school meals to 800,000 children living in poverty.

Spencer added that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regularly met with food retailers and trade associations to discuss a variety of topics, including the effect of inflation on food.

The minister made the comments in a written reply to Patrick Grady, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North, who had written to him about the problem of rising grocery costs.

Defra was “taking steps to maintain an efficient food supply chain by combating any potential burdens or frictions that could otherwise drive up consumer food prices,” Spencer added.

Supermarkets were selling more value-range items, matching rivals’ prices and freezing them on certain products, he said, to help households cope with costs.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scheduled to hold a meeting at Number 10 this month with the heads of supermarkets, trade bodies and farmers to discuss a range of issues, including high inflation.

A government spokesman said the meeting would bring together the government and representatives from the entire food supply chain to establish cooperation and promote all elements of the agricultural and food industries.

“The event will look at how we can champion UK food and drink, both at home and abroad, boosting confidence, helping more businesses invest in domestic production and supporting the long-term resilience and sustainability of the sector. UK food,” they said.

Last year, Downing Street was accused of making “reheated ads” after he unveiled a series of existing corporate measures aimed at helping households cope with the cost of living crisis.

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