Poor beef prices in 2014 and this year’s plunge in the price of milk have underlined the need for the government to create an Agricultural Ombudsman to ensure that both food producers and the UK’s food supply are protected.
The National Beef Association (NBA) called for action on the issue last year and is now reiterating its demand for a watchdog to act as an independent adjudicator between primary producers and food processors.
NBA chief executive Chris Mallon said: “Britain really needs to consider and protect its domestic food producers, because there is so much global competition for food.
“The reality is that if primary producers are forced out of the industry, people we will go hungry. If more dairy farmers decide to leave the industry, our children will go thirsty.
“Dairy Farmers are only doing what they were told they needed to do - they expanded their businesses and now their prices have collapsed. We saw the same situation in the beef sector last year; as soon as we increased production in response to a supply and demand, the processors cut prices.
“This treatment of our primary producers cannot continue and the government needs to take action now.”
The NBA issued calls for an Agricultural Ombudsman at last year’s Beef Summit and is again demanding action from the government as the precarious position producers face is highlighted by the plunge in the milk price. The situation reflects the problems the beef industry faced in 2014, when the steep decline in prices left many farmers questioning whether they had a sustainable future in the industry.
The government acted to create a Grocery Code Adjudicator to rule on issues between the major supermarkets and their suppliers after a sustained campaign by producers. An Agricultural Ombudsman would have similar powers to ensure all parties keep to their sides of the bargain. Crucially, it would give primary food producers the confidence to invest in their businesses going forwards, allowing them to expand to meet the UK’s growing demand for food.
The UK’s food production supply chain of producers, processors and retailers is complex. In the beef sector, the current set up and availability of cheap, inferior imports means that farmers can see the prices they are paid drop dramatically while consumers notice very little difference in the prices they are paying in the supermarket.
Mr Mallon said: “Last summer’s Beef Summit suggested a voluntary code of practice for the industry, but sadly, we have seen that in practice this simply does not work.
“We need a watchdog with teeth for the entire agricultural sector, to look at contracts between primary suppliers and primary producers - whether that is beef, lamb, eggs, milk or Vegetables - to make sure both sides keep to their side of the bargain.
“The relationship needs to be put on a formal footing and the government is the only one with the power to do this, perhaps by extending the remit of the Grocery Ombudsman.
“With a general election coming up in May, let’s hope the next government will put Britain’s future food security near the top of its priority list.”