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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Supermarket promises leave a bitter taste

You can’t have missed the massive, multi-million pound advertising campaign that Tesco is running.

Full pages in national newspapers and ads on the radio to say how they are big customers and big supporters of British agriculture and how they are going to source more of their meat from our own farms, rather than from, say, Poland, France, Ireland or New Zealand.

This campaign follows a massive and massively expensive ad campaign in January when they apologised for some of their burgers containing horsemeat.

It is heartening that the nation’s grocer is taking it all so seriously and making such bold statements. So why am I not entirely convinced by their warm and reassuring words?

Partly because it is one thing to talk the talk and entirely another, harder and more difficult thing to walk the walk.

But the main reason I’m not entirely convinced is because they – and other supermarkets – do not have a brilliant record of having fair and reasonable relationships with farmers.

Time and again we’ve heard nightmare tales of farmers agreeing contracts to supply a major supermarket, only for the deal to turn sour as tougher demands are made for more and cheaper produce.

Last week, Tesco’s chief executive Philip Clarke made a “sincere commitment” to source more meat closer to home, with all fresh chicken coming from British suppliers from July as a first step, and insisted the changes would not make food more expensive.

His comments come after farming leaders demanded that supermarkets stop scouring the world for the cheapest food they could find and instead support the British products consumers want.

This is what should be happening anyway.

Apart from the fact that our animal husbandry is the best in the world, our traceability schemes second to none, spending money in your own country creates more wealth and jobs for your own country than spending abroad.

Mr Clarke told the National Farmers’ Union annual conference: “Where it is reasonable to do so, we will source from British producers.

“As a first step I announce that from July all of our fresh chicken must come from UK farmers. No exceptions.

“And we will move, over time, to make sure all our chicken in all our products, fresh or frozen, is from the British Isles,” he said, to applause from farmers.

He also said Tesco would conduct a root and branch review of its supply chains as part of a genuine shift in how the company sourced the products it sold, and that part of the new approach would be working directly with farmers and growers.

But he said: “It does not follow that the measures I’m announcing today means food becomes more expensive.”

This is the part that worries me.

I’ll be amazed if our farmers can produce meat as cheaply as that found through dealers and manufacturers on the continent.

Nor should they be expected to.

We don’t want farm prices driven so low that we drive farmers out of business.

We all want value for money and food at a reasonable price, but not at a price that means corners have to be cut, risks have to be taken or producers made bankrupt.

As we near the end of Fairtrade fortnight, it’s worth thinking about this.

It has been said before, I know, but it is worth repeating: The ethos of fairly-traded produce should start at home.

Tesco and others have to make profits, but they should not be excessive and they should not be made from the misfortune of others.

That would leave a bitter taste in the mouth and could cause irreparable damage to the country agriculture industry.

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