HC Deb 02 July 1998 vol 315 cc512-4
9. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

What steps he is taking to ensure that British farmers co-operate with British supermarkets to ensure high-quality food. [47164]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The quality of British food is second to none. The Government continue to help our farmers and growers to develop their marketing expertise so that they are better able to supply their products with the consistency, and in the volumes, that the supermarkets say they need.

Mr. Sheerman

That answer may seem a little complacent to anyone who has sampled the diversity and richness of other countries' food. Does the Minister agree that we have some of the most efficient and effective but also some of the most powerful supermarkets in the world? The power that they wield against our farming industry is quite intimidating. Will my hon. Friend ensure that our Government play a role in evening the balance to give diversity, choice and a good price to British farmers?

Mr. Rooker

I do not think that the supermarkets are against the British farming industry. That is not my experience from visits around the country or my meetings in London. They have worked incredibly well over the past 12 months, on the farm assurance scheme in particular, so that there is some consistency and so that farmers are not played off one against the other between different supermarkets. MAFF's task force has helped more than 500 food businesses to improve their marketing techniques. Although we make every effort, we cannot, do not seek to, and are not qualified to do the industry's marketing job for it.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

One of the finest products on supermarket shelves is traditional British brandy butter, made to a recipe tried and tested for more than 100 years. Does the Minister agree that a new EU directive that will make it illegal to market this traditional product as brandy butter is unreasonable? Will he do something to help brandy butter producers such as Charles Gordon Associates in my constituency, which tells me that jobs are at risk from the directive? Will he help it to stop the directive preventing it from selling its traditional product in our shops?

Mr. Rooker

For traditional chilled butters with alcoholic content, if there is a minimum of 34 per cent. butterfat content, I presume that there is 66 per cent. rum or brandy. One wonders what else is in there if those quantities are not matched by the manufacturer.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

As someone who makes and consumes brandy butter, I am sympathetic, but can the Minister go back to the original question and address the relationship between supermarkets and the farming community? Many farmers are concerned that some supermarket chains choose to import goods that are produced to lower standards than those acceptable to our farming community or aware consumers. Steps should be taken to increase public information about such practices.

Mr. Rooker

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I can only repeat what I said earlier. This week, when I was at the spray and sprayers exhibition in Cambridgeshire—[Laughter.] Well, many thousands of other people were there as well. I see that people find that a laughing matter, but that is a serious and important part of the industry. In discussions with representatives of farmers, supermarkets, the agrochemical industry and women's institutes—the whole food chain—it was clear that people were seeking to work together to ensure good-quality British food. We claim that it is the best, and that people should buy British, not just because it is British but because it is the best. People are working together in a way that they have never done before. We would encourage and embrace that, but people have to be free to import products. It comes down to nothing more or less than consumer choice, but food will not be allowed to go on sale in this country unless it conforms to the food safety legislation.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Surely the Minister must understand that there is a growing realisation that the powers of the supermarkets, their domination of the food chain and the way in which they dictate terms to farmers and suppliers are a cause for concern. Is it not a grotesque fact that one of the most effective farmers' co-operatives, Milk Marque, is under investigation while the supermarkets are able to exercise considerable dominance without being questioned? Is it not important that farmers be encouraged to combine and co-operate to achieve countervailing power? Do not the Government and the development agencies have a role in facilitating and encouraging that?

Mr. Rooker

Yes, indeed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are encouraging farmers' co-operatives, but food producers, especially supermarkets, are always subject to the Office of Fair Trading restrictions. They are not out there as completely free agents.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

It may be a shade early to talk of Christmas, but my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) mentioned brandy butter. May I draw it to the attention of the Minister that another Christmas favourite, beef on the bone, remains banned? He knows that we have consistently opposed that ban, and in today's Financial Times and Evening Standard there is a ray of hope in the indication that the Prime Minister is calling on the Minister of Agriculture to lift the ban. May I congratulate him on recruiting the Prime Minister to our cause? In the light of that information, may I now ask the Minister when he intends to stop pursuing people in the meat trade—caterers, butchers and others—in terms of prosecution? When will he repent like a sinner who has made a mistake, apologise for imposing this unnecessary ban and get it lifted?

Mr. Rooker

We are not the prosecuting authority, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware. We are not pursuing anyone. The law is the law and it will take its course. I am not prepared to comment on cases that are currently before the courts.

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