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Farmers, food and blackmail: Can you help?
5 March, 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reports that two years after the supermarket chains signed a new code of practice when it comes to giving their suppliers a fair price, little has changed.

THE HUGE supermarket chains have been much in the news of late, what with the locally based Morrison’s bidding for, and likely to get, Safeways to join the big-boy nationals of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

What has not been in the news – and what seems to have been deliberately forgotten – is that, according the Country Land and Business Association, the nationwide chains are still blackmailing farmers and market gardeners to sell them produce at margins so thin that they are lucky to break even.

Now the CLA doesn’t actually use the word “blackmail” – it is not really a business-like word, I suppose.
What would you buy?

But that’s what it meant a week ago when it called on the Government to appoint an official supermarket regulator, a man or woman with the same sort of teeth as the people who keep a watchful eye on broadcasting, gas and electricity and (God help him) the railways, to ensure they are not ripping off the general public too blatantly.

This call follows an announcement that the Office of Fair Trading is once again investigating the supermarket chains to see if they are honouring a code of conduct they signed two years ago promised to give they food suppliers – the farmers and market gardeners – a decent price for their produce.

That code was created as tens of thousands of food producers were going bankrupt because they had got themselves onto a conveyor belt to bankruptcy. They won a large supermarket contract, invested heavily to meet its demands – and, when everything was up and running, were told that they must reduce their agreed price to meet increased competition.

Two years on and, says the CLA, nothing has changed. The producers are still being squeezed dry because they daren’t complain. The reason: they fear being blacklisted by supermarket buyers and – with their newly installed machinery still not paid for - going down the pan altogether.

Said Douglas Chalmers, the association’s Northern regional director: "It is unreasonable to force suppliers to face the risk of being blacklisted by the UK's top supermarkets. Rural businesses can be destroyed overnight by a single decision from a supermarket, such as the sudden termination of a contract."

"We need an independent ombudsman. We must start talking to the supermarkets to agree a framework where complaints can come from suppliers on a credible but anonymous basis and the system can be seen to work. After all, the British justice system protects its witnesses. Why isn't the code doing the same?"

Now is that doesn’t count as blackmail, what does? I wish the campaign the best of luck but, sadly, without a lot of confidence. There is a general election looming on the horizon – and the last thing Chancellor Gordon Brown wants now is an increase in food prices.

The man once known as Tight Sporran has gone on a spending spree like a drunken sailor. He has squeezed billions out of us in so-called “stealth taxes” and has got away with it so far because interests rates are low and – you have to admit this – the supermarkets do keep the prices of many (although not most) goods down.

So what can concerned country folk do to keep our farmers and growers in business? The answer is simply: buy local produce, straight from the farm gate if possible, or use a supermarket chain like Preston-based Booth’s, which stocks a very wide range of genuine local produce.

It will cost you a few bob more but you will get much better quality. Best of all, encourage your village shop to stock local produce – and buy it there. You’ll miss it when it’s gone!

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