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A policy expert who proposed the creation of the Groceries Code Adjudicator said the government should have expanded the remit of the GCA instead

Appointing a new Agricultural Supply Chain Adjudicator, rather than expanding the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, “risks letting retailers off the hook”, a trading expert has warned.

Fiona Gooch, one of the policy experts who proposed the creation of the GCA, has criticised the creation of a new adjudicator under the government’s Fair Dealing Obligations (Milk) Regulations 2024. The statutory instrument, which will create regulated contracts in dairy, is currently making its way through parliament.

The regulatory model for dairy will initially serve as a template for planned fair dealing regulations within pork, eggs, and horticulture, according to Defra, and possibly the chicken sector too in the future.

However, Gooch – a senior policy advisor at charity Transform Trade – hit out at the focus on protecting farmers from processors within Defra’s four chosen categories (while also ignoring farmers across a host of other sectors), rather than expanding the GCA’s retailer remit “upstream”.

The plans “won’t address the root cause” of poor treatment from retailers, who were not directly impacted by the legislation, she said.

The Defra adjudicator “may be able to address the farmers’ experience of unfair trading practices” from their processors in the four sectors, said Gooch, who was part of a coalition of experts that campaigned for the creation of the GCA in the 2000s.

However, retailers would “continue to get away with passing unfair trading practices” she warned.

Is new dairy adjudicator a taste of things to come?

And mid-sized processors could also face a “ripple effect” down the supply chain, having to increase prices in line with regulated contracts, while also being squeezed by retailers on price, with no regulatory protection.

Gooch also questioned the logic of Defra operating one “siloed” adjudicator, while the GCA was under the umbrella of the Department of Business & Trade – pointing to the lack of dialogue between the two government departments.

The same issue was raised in the House of Lords this week by Labour peer Baroness Hayman during a debate on the new dairy regulations. She said “where the cause of that unfair trading practice originated with the food retailers, the retailers will continue to get away with passing unfair trading practices”.

In response, government representative Lord Douglas-Miller said the new agricultural adjudicator was designed “to focus on the first stage of the supply chain”, with Defra confident “this targeted approach, looking in-depth at specific areas of the supply chain, will be very effective”.

Gooch urged the government to create a mechanism whereby the GCA “gets informed by the Defra adjudicator in circumstances where there is reasonable suspicion it was actions by the retailer in breach of GSCOP”. 

A better approach would also have been “to expand the GCA by setting up deputy adjudicators so that information about unfair trading practices within a retailer’s food supply chains can most easily be shared with the GCA supermarket watchdog”, she added.

It is expected the new dairy regulations will become live 12 weeks after the legislation completes its passage through the parliamentary process for all new and renegotiated contracts.

Defra says there will then be a 12-month implementation period before existing contracts must be made compliant.

It is currently recruiting for the new adjudicator position.