HC Deb 28 June 2001 vol 370 cc766-7
4. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

If she will meet the British Retail Consortium to discuss methods of improving local souring of food produce. [573]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)

The British Retail Consortium represents one of the key sectors in the UK food chain. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met it yesterday and they discussed a wide range of issues.

Mr. Pickthall

I am pleased about the coincidence of that meeting's timing. Does my hon. Friend agree that the British Retail Consortium has an enormously important role to play in encouraging local sourcing of agricultural produce? Does he also agree that the practice by some of the big retailers of arbitrarily ending contracts with local growers, especially in Lancashire, creates serious business problems for growers and increases the environmental damage by multiplying lorry miles as they haul heavy produce back and forth across the country? Will he continue to place pressure on the British Retail Consortium to strengthen local sourcing of produce and fully shoulder its environmental responsibilities?

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about food miles, regional foods, regional distribution and regional marketing, and we raise those issues with the British Retail Consortium and large retailers. He will be aware that following on from the Competition Commission report, a statutory code of practice has been recommended to cover some of those matters. That is being prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry and will be completed in due course.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Minister will know about the great number of distortions in the food chain. Of particular concern for dairy farmers is the failure to achieve a sustainable increase in the farmgate price of milk for both liquid milk and cheese production. There was a hint in the previous Parliament that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was producing a study on the food chain as it applies to milk producers and the supermarkets. Will he confirm whether that is the case? If it is, when will the report be finalised and what action will be taken to improve the lot of dairy farmers?

Mr. Morley

One change that will improve the lot of dairy farmers is to act on the Competition Commission's former recommendations to split up the former Milk Marque into regional co-operatives. That will help with prices and competition. We consider the issues carefully, but most are market driven. That is why it is important for the agricultural sector to ally itself more closely with the market and consumers. The Department is, of course, providing help and support, both financially in terms of market advice and in discussions with end users.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

If my hon. Friend has such discussions, will he consider how the quality of pigmeat from animals raised on swill differs from that of pigmeat produced by other forms of pig-rearing methods? I understand that the taste is different. Will he consider whether it is appropriate to lift the ban on properly prepared pigswill so that that market can be more fully exploited?

Mr. Morley

The ban on pigswill was introduced as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak, in the light of concerns about applying the regulations on heat treatment, and that was the appropriate course to take. There are one or two exemptions for pig feed that has a low risk of disease spread. We will give those matters careful consideration.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

In the light of the claim this week by the major bakeries, justifying the 9p rise in the price of a loaf of bread on the basis of an increase in wheat prices—whereas, in fact, as I am sure the Minister knows, the total cost of the wheat content of bread is less than 8p a loaf and the increase probably 1p—will the Government now adopt the Opposition's policy to introduce a quarterly survey of comparisons between trends in retail prices and in farmgate prices, so that both consumers and farmers know who is being taken for a ride by manufacturers?

Mr. Morley

There is nothing new about those trends. Indeed. the information is collected and made available. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about how that can be disseminated more widely, we will of course be willing to consider them. Again, these are market issues, a fact which emphasises the need for the agriculture industry to take into account market changes and be involved in some of the added value and downstream distribution of products. That is the way in which agriculture should go. Many of our policies are designed to assist producers in having more of a stake in such matters.