In March, Unite published our report “Unite Investigates: Profiteering Across the Economy”.[1] We showed how profits of the UK’s biggest companies had jumped 89% over the pandemic. We explained how high inflation was initially triggered by “external shocks” including pandemic, war and droughts; but pushed higher by companies boosting profits all along supply chains, in sectors from energy to food.

While energy prices are stabilising, the latest ONS figures show food inflation at 19.1% in May, only marginally down from 19.2% in April, so remaining close to a 45 year high.[2] This briefing updates facts and figures on food profiteering.

  • Even as their customers struggle with high food prices, the two biggest supermarkets, Tesco and J Sainsbury, are paying out a massive £1.2 billion to their shareholders this year. Tesco plans to pay £859 million in dividends in 2023; Sainsbury £319 million. These are their highest “common” dividends since 2015. (In 2021 Tesco paid a “special” dividend of £5 billion after selling its Asia business.)
  • In our March report, we saw how the Big 3 supermarkets made massive profits last year. Their combined net profits in 2021/2 were £3.2 billion: double the £1.6 billion they’d made before the pandemic in 2019.[3]
  • A closer look at the accounts of Tesco and Sainsbury also shows that last year (2021/2) both made their highest underlying operating profits (profit before interest and tax) and gross profit (profit from sales, before administrative expenses) since 2014. That is: as food inflation set in last year, they made their highest underlying profits for many years.
  • Thus the Cost of Living crisis has allowed the big supermarkets to push their profits back up to the high levels seen over a decade ago, when the Big 3 controlled over 70% market share and enjoyed what The Guardian has called “world's highest” retail profit margins. [4]
  • In their latest profit releases, Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s continue to make huge profits from retail sales. Sainsbury’s underlying gross profit was 3% higher than in 2021/2; Tesco’s was just 2% lower than its very high level last year. This suggests they continue to gain from high food prices. (NB: Asda have not yet published accounting statements.)
  • Both supermarkets have recently announced lower final “net” profits. Some media commentators have bought the line that this is because they are holding down prices to help customers. This is not accurate: in both cases final earnings have fallen because of large “one-off” issues with legal costs, property asset valuations (largely due to interest rate rises), and “restructuring”, as well as increased “administrative expenses”. In short: nothing to do with food costs.
  • In Sainsbury’s case these extra costs actually include £54 million budgeted for redundancy payments, such as caused by its job cuts at Argos.
  • But it’s not just about supermarkets: the problem is all along the supply chain. Other companies are still making extremely high profits. For example, the “Big 4” agribusiness giants that control 90% of the world’s grain supply made record profits of £11.3 billion in the latest year (2021-2): compared to £7.7 billion the year before, and just £2.3 billion in 2019. That is: their profits have jumped 364%.
  • One of these, food multinational Cargill, made £5.5 billion profit this year: the highest level in its 157 year history.
  • Energy profiteering has also had an impact on food prices – as well as household bills and many key industries such as steel. Our latest report “Unite Investigates: Unplugging the Energy Profiteers” analyses energy profiteering in detail.[5] As we argue, there is only one sensible option to deal with this crisis and guarantee our energy future: public ownership of the UK’s energy system, with democratic control by workers and communities.

1.1          Tesco and Sainsbury hand shareholders £1.2 billion – highest dividends since 2015

In their recent results announcements, both Tesco and J Sainsbury announced that they would put dividends at their highest levels since 2015.

  • In 2023 Tesco plans to pay out £859 million in shareholder dividends. Last year (2022) it paid out £731 million. [6]
  • In 2023 Sainsbury says it will pay £319 million altogether in dividend payments. The figures was £238 million in 2022.[7]
  • For both companies, these are the highest “common” dividends since 2015.[8] (In 2021, Tesco paid a “special dividend” of £5 billion after selling its Thailand and Malaysia business.[9])

Note: Tesco has set its 2022-3 dividend per share at 10.8p, the same as in fiscal year 2021-2. Sainsbury has set its 2022-3 dividend per share at 13.1p, the same as in fiscal year 2021-2. As the 2020-1 dividends per share were lower, this means that the total dividend pay-outs to all shareholders in the calendar year 2023 have increased on 2022.

1.2          The companies’ “underlying” retail profits are still very high

UK food retail is dominated by three giant supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda. As of May 2023 between them they control half of the whole market (Tesco 21%, Sainsbury 15%, Asda 14%).[10]

In our March report, we saw how the Big 3 supermarkets had a massively profitable year in 2021. Their combined 2021 net profits were £3.2 billion: double the £1.6 billion they’d made before the pandemic in 2019. Their combined profit margin was 4.3% -- 89% higher than 2.8% in 2019.[11]

That is: the top supermarkets did exceedingly well indeed out of the sharp jump in food inflation at the end of the pandemic.

In the last few weeks, two of the three – Tesco and Sainsbury’s – have issued results announcements for their 2022/3 year. Both companies’ final or “net” profits are lower than the high levels of 2021/2. Tesco announced a net profit after tax of £747 million: some way down on £1.48 billion last year, and marginally lower than £971 million in 2019.[12] Sainsbury announced £207 million, well down on £677 million last year – although higher than its £152 million in 2019.[13]

The supermarkets also announced smaller declines in their “adjusted operating profits” – which they present as more accurately representing performance, as final net profits have been hit by “one off” items not related to everyday business. Tesco’s adjusted operating profit fell 7% (from £2,825m to £2,630m); its operating profit from retail (i.e., everything except Tesco Bank) fell 6.3% to £2,487m. [14] Sainsbury’s “underlying” operating profit fell 6.4% (from £1,039m to £972m). [15]  

Some media reports have taken this to show that the supermarkets are suffering themselves from the impact of rising food costs. Have they been holding their prices down in sympathy with customers, while “absorbing” increased costs from their suppliers?

But this is not an accurate interpretation. Looking into the company’s accounts shows that these falls in net and operating profits aren’t due to retail costs, but quite different factors.

To get a sense of the impact of food prices on supermarket profits, we need to look at their “gross profits”. Gross profit is measured as sales revenue minus “cost of sales”: which includes the costs the supermarkets pay for food, petrol, clothes and other retail items. If supermarkets are cushioning their customers by “absorbing” higher food costs, this is where we should see it.

It still doesn’t give us the whole picture: unfortunately, neither supermarket offers any breakdown in their recent results of how much of their gross profits came from food retail, as opposed to other retail sales including petrol. It is possible that food profits fell, but the supermarkets made up for this by ramping up petrol margins.

Tesco’s Income Statement shows that its “gross profit before adjusting items” was £4.69 billion in 2022/3, just 2% lower than the £4.81 billion in 2021/2.[16] (And, in fact, that difference was almost entirely a result of a financial loss from Tesco Bank. [17]) This suggests that if its own supply costs have increased, this has not significantly impacted its profits – because Tesco has been able to pass on costs to its customers. And we need to recall that its profits in 2021/2 were already at a very high level.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s gross profit “before non-underlying items” actually increased last year. It was £2.42 billion in 2022/3, 3% higher than £2.36 billion in 2021/2.[18] That is: its profit from sales actually went up, from an already high level.

So what did cause the drops in operating and final net profits?

In both cases, difference between “gross” and “operating” profits are due to “administrative expenses”. Tesco’s administrative expenses climbed 4% (from £1,983 m in 2021/2 to £2,060m last year). [19] Sainsbury’s administrative expenses climbed 9%, from £1,342 in 2021/2 to £1,480 in 2022/3. [20]  This explains why Sainsbury’s gross profit rose, while operating profit fell; and why Tesco’s operating profit fell by 7% while gross profit only fell 2%.

Neither Tesco nor Sainsbury break down what they include in “administrative expenses”. They could, for example, include administrative staff costs, and possibly some energy costs. But they should not include costs of food or other retail supplies.

As for the final “net” profits, for both supermarkets these were impacted significantly by other “one-off” or “non-underlying” factors: which in both cases, again, had nothing to do with food costs.

Tesco’s final net profit fell mainly because of a £982 million “non-cash asset impairment charge”: that is, a decrease in the assessed value of its assets, “mainly property”. [21] A note in Tesco’s earnings announcement explains:

“The majority of the net impairment charge relates to increased discount rates due to increases in government bond rates as a result of the prevailing macroeconomic uncertainty. […] Property fair values in the UK have also decreased due to the weakening of the property investment market in the last six months, which has led to increased yields.”[22]

That is: Tesco has cut the accounting value of its property portfolio (stores) because of the jump in government interest rates, as well as the weakening property market.

In short: nothing at all to do with food costs.

Similarly, Sainsbury’s final profit was hit by factors including “non-cash asset impairments”, “one-off income from legal settlements in the prior year”, [23] and “restructuring costs”. [24]

In fact, a note in Sainsbury’s accounts reveals that part of the “non-underlying” cost in 2022/3 was £106 million spent on its “restructuring programme”. [25] And £54 million of that came from redundancy payments – “redundancies announced as part of Argos store closures, depot closures, and the exit of operations in Ireland.”[26] Sainsbury has shut down Argos operations in Ireland, and is carrying out a job cuts programme at Argos in England, including an announcement in February that threatened 750 jobs at two depots.[27]

To summarise:

  • Both supermarkets are still very profitable.
  • Sainsbury’s gross profits from retail sales were actually up; Tesco’s were down just 2% from the very high level of 2021/2. That is: both companies are still making big profits from retail sales.
  • Their operating profits were impacted by rising “administrative costs”, rather than food (or other retail) costs.
  • The big drops in their final profits were due to unrelated factors, e.g., the rise in government interest rates (affecting Tesco’s property valuation), and Sainsbury’s “restructuring” programme (including redundancies). These were not related to “absorbing” higher food costs from suppliers.
  • One disclaimer: as neither supermarket reveals how much profit it makes on food vs. petrol, it’s not possible to tell if they used higher petrol margins to subsidise food prices.

NB: Asda has not yet revealed net or gross profit figures: it is privately owned by the Issa family, rather than a PLC, so does not have the same financial transparency requirements.[28]

1.3          Is it “greedflation”? The top supermarkets made their highest profits in a decade just as food inflation shot up

For both Tesco and Sainsbury, 2021/2 was an exceptionally good year. They last made profits of that level 10 years ago, in Tesco’s case, or 8 years ago, in Sainsbury’s case.[29]

For Tesco, 2021/2 was the most profitable year since 2011/2. This is true on every measure: net, operating or gross profits. (NB: excluding the £5 billion exceptional profit Tesco made in 2020/1 from selling its Asian operations.) It is also true whether you look at absolute profits or at profit margins.

For Sainsbury, 2021/2 was the most profitable year since 2013/4. Again, this is true on every measure of profit or profit margin.

It is true that the supermarkets’ recent profit rises have not been as eye-watering as multi-billion jumps for some companies further up the food supply chain, e.g., Nestle or Cargill. And that supermarkets did made bigger profit margins before 2013. But does that mean the supermarkets haven’t been profiteering?

The definition of profiteering we have used is:

“the act of taking advantage of a situation in order to make a profit, usually by charging high prices for things people need”

There is strong evidence that the leading supermarkets have raised the prices of things people need in a crisis situation, and made an increased profit from doing this. They have used the cost of living crisis to help push profits back up to levels we haven’t seen for a decade.

Back to normal?

Some commentators have argued that the rise in supermarket profits is just taking them back to “normal” levels. This depends on how you define “normal”.

  • Going back to the 1970s, “intense, price-based competition in UK grocery
    retailing led to margins as low as 1.7 per cent”.[30]
  • Then, in the 1980s, the top supermarkets rose to dominate the market, with the big 3 winning over 70% market share.[31] This was their golden age, with what The Guardian has called the "world's highest" retail profit margins. [32] Mean operating profit margins between 1980 and 2012 were "steady" at around 5%.[33]
  • In the last decade we returned to a more competitive market, with price-competition largely driven by the growth of the "discount" supermarkets (Lidl, Aldi). [34] Operating profit margins fell back below 3%: averaging 3.1% for Tesco in 2013-21, and 2.5% for Sainsbury.[35]

So recent high operating profit margins are “normal” in relation to the oligopolistic golden age of 1980-2012, when UK supermarkets had extremely high profits.

Or back to the golden age?

The long three decades starting around 1980 were the golden age for the big supermarkets: Sainsbury, Asda, and above all Tesco, which became the clear leader in the 1990s. A 2009 Oxford University study by John Thanassoulis identified these key facts over the previous 30 years: [36]

  • The three biggest supermarket dramatically expanded their market share
    from around 20% to around 70%.
  • They had “growing profits over the last 30 years: of the order of 2 to
    3 times for Sainsbury and Asda. Yet Tesco has been in a different league
    with real profits growing nearly 9 times in 20 years since 1987.”
  • Their (operating) profit margins in the period were steady at around

According to The Guardian, UK supermarket profits were "the world's highest" in this period.[37]

Then it all went downhill from around 2014. Tesco's profit dived that year partly due to a major accounting scandal. 2015 was the big supermarkets' "year of hell" with all four largest companies suffering "collapsing profits, falling sales, market share disasters, job losses and store closures."[38]

One of the main factors was increased price competition driven by the expansion of the "discount" chains, including Lidl and Aldi. Although they had arrived in Britain in the late 1990s, they only had marginal market share in the first years; but started to grow fast from 2010. [39]

This new competitive environment dramatically squeezed big supermarket
profit margins: operating profit margins fell from the old 5% to 3% and below in 2013-2021. [40] This is how The Guardian described the situation in 2019:

"In 2017, Aldi overtook the Co-op to become the UK’s fifth largest retailer; today it has a 7.5% market share, closing in on fourth-place Morrisons, with 10.6%. Lidl has 5.3%, more than Waitrose. What’s more, the two discounters are still growing quickly – opening an average of one new store every week, often in more affluent towns. By sucking in shoppers and, as former Aldi UK CEO Paul Foley puts it, “sucking the profitability out of the industry” – profit margins of 2-3% are now the norm – the two German-owned companies have forced the “big four” supermarkets to take drastic measures." [41]

1.4          It’s not just about supermarkets: big profits are happening along the supply chain

In our Unite Investigates profiteering report, we showed how inflation is driven by compounded price rises all the way along supply chains.[42] Supermarkets are just the last stage in this, at the retail end. Even before they set their prices, other companies may have taken their own chances to boost prices at earlier stages.

In the food sector, our report examines several important stages in the supply chain:

  • Core inputs including energy and fertilisers
  • Transport, including shipping and road freight
  • Agribusiness and commodity trading
  • Food manufacturing
  • Retail: supermarkets

We found big price and profit spikes in every one of these areas. For example:

  • 8 of the UK’s top 10 food manufacturers (including Nestle, Unilever, Associated British Foods) had reported their 2021 profits when we published the report. They had made combined profits of £23 billion. Both profit levels and margins were up 21% on 2019.[43]
  • The Big Four global agribusiness conglomerates (Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus), control 90% of the world’s grain supply as well as much of other key food supplies. These have been “reaping big gains” from food price hikes: they made combined profits of $10.4 billion (£7.7 bn) in 2021 – a 255% jump compared to 2019’s $2.9 billion (£2.3 billion).[44]

1.5          New results show the Big 4 global agribusiness giants made over £11 billion between them last year

The latest 2022 results show:

  • Manufacturers: Nestle brings down the record total. The same 8 firms made a combined £17.8 billion in 2022: down on 2021, but still not doing badly at all. In fact most of that change was due to Nestle, which made “only” £7.8 billion – compared with an astonishing £13.7 billion in 2021. On the other hand, Unilever’s profits were up: £6.5 billion, versus £5.1 billion last year.[45]
  • Agribusiness: the boom continues. However, the global commodity producers saw their record boom continue. The Big 4’s combined profits climbed again to $13.6 billion (£11.3 billion).[46]
    • This included an amazing $6.7 billion (£5.5 bn) for Cargill, up from $4.9 billion (£3.6 bn) in 2021 (and $2.6 billion in 2019). As the Wall Street Journal reported, that is: “the most it earned annually in its 157-year history […] That’s a 35% increase from the previous fiscal year, which had also been a record.”[47] Although it looks like there won’t be a third record year in a row: so far in the first 9 months of its 2022-3 year it “only” made $3.2 billion.[48]


Net profit 2022/23 (£m)

Net margin 2022/23

Net profit 2021/22 (£m)

Net margin  2021/22

Net profit 2019/20 (£m)

Net margin 2019/20

Associated British Foods plc







Hilton Food Group plc







Arla Foods amba







Unilever plc (Unilever UK)







Cranswick plc







Mondelez International Inc. (Mondelez UK)







Bakkavor Group plc







Nestle SA (Nestle UK)







Combined profits / margin









Net profit 2022/3


Net margin 2022/3

Net profit 2021/2 ($m)

Net margin  2021

Net profit 2019/20 ($m)

Net margin 2019/20

Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM)





















Louis Dreyfus







Combined profits / margin












[6] p29

Note: in both financial years 2021-2 and 2022-3 the dividend per share has been set at the same rate of 10.9p. As the 2020-1 dividend per share was lower, this means that the total dividend pay-out to all shareholders in the calendar year 2023 has increased on 2022.

[7] p36

Note: in both financial years 2021-2 and 2022-3 the dividend per share has been set at the same rate of 13.1p. As the 2020-1 dividend per share was lower, this means that the total dividend pay-out to all shareholders in the calendar year 2023 has increased on 2022.

[8] Tesco historic dividends: CapitalIQ and

J Sainsbury historic dividends: CapitalIQ and




[12] and


[14] and  p21

[15] p18

[16] p15

[17] p15 and p23

[18] p18

[19] and p15

[20]  p18

[21] p4

[22] p32


[24] p26

[25] p26

[26] p26-27

[27] and

[28] and Asda doesn’t release its full profits information: we will have to wait until its accounts are published on the Companies House website. Although last year accounts were published on 5 April they have not appeared yet at the time of writing. On 29 March Asda made a press statement which only gave an “adjusted EBITDA (excluding fuel)” profit figure. This was £886 million – “24% down year on year”. The company hasn’t yet announced what dividends it will pay.

[29][xiii] Source: Income Statements in company annual reports 2012 to 2022, available at:;






[35][vii] Source: analysis of Income Statements in company annual reports 2012 to 2022, available at:;





[40][xi] Source: analysis of Income Statements in company annual reports 2012 to 2022, available at:;



[43] Source: Company Accounts via CapitalIQ

[44] Source: Company Accounts via CapitalIQ and Bloomberg

Currency translation using HMRC rate for December 2021:

[45] Source: Company Accounts via Capital IQ

[46] Currency translation using HMRC rate for December 2022: