It’s said poachers make good gamekeepers, knowing the tricks of the trade. I’m not sure this explains Tesco’s board choosing Dave Lewis from Unilever to replace Philip Clarke. Understanding the ruthless world of supply chain management and cost paring must have helped. Fifty years ago, Western food systems were dominated by manufacturers. Then, as retailers concentrated, they gradually usurped manufacturers. Today, that’s changed. Three not two giant sectors vie over who makes the money. Of the £196bn UK consumers spend on food and drink, retailers take £27.7bn, manufacturers £24.1bn, and caterers £26.7bn. One constant is that farmers and growers get little – £9.6bn.
As the most powerful job in UK retailing changed occupants, the person nominally in charge of national food policy changed too. Few expected Owen Paterson’s departure. Reputedly a climate change denier, Paterson wrote last week of his pride ‘standing up to the green lobby.’ Surreal. Committed to raising exports to offset the whacking £40.2bn imports, his performance wasn’t much more successful than Clarke’s. I suspect Philip Clarke’s pushing Tesco to take the environment more seriously will outlive him. Fresh from Unilever, Dave Lewis knows environmental constraints are reshaping corporate capitalism.
Last week, we witnessed another rum case, when the FSA chair, a former president of the National Farmers Union, used his casting vote to withhold data on rising campylobacter poisoning. Two thirds of chickens contaminated! Since starting in 2000, the FSA has moved from being a body committed to protect the public by open decision-making and keeping industry interests at bay to one where the board protected industry interests. In just 14 years!
Back in 1955, the US academic Marver Bernstein coined the phrase ‘regulatory capture’ to describe how regulatory bodies can become subservient to the industry they’re set up to regulate. On average, he thought, regulatory capture occurred in the US after 15 to 20 years.
Last week’s FSA decision suggests it outperformed Bernstein’s worst-case scenario. This is unacceptable.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University, London