The NFU has been left waiting for assurances from Tesco that it is committed to UK livestock farmers, after the beef price in the south west fell 12p/kg over three weeks.

"We've seen some volatility in the market. This has fuelled rumours - and beef producers' fears - that retailers are 'squeezing' beef prices, particularly in the south west," said NFU chief livestock adviser

Peter King.

It follows weeks of warnings from groups like the English Beef and Lamb Executive, urging farmers not sell themselves short as retail beef sales continue to rise. TNS data for the year to 10 September show sales up 1% to £1.48bn. Concerns over falling prices sparked a meeting between the NFU and Tesco, which was asked to make a gesture to recapture producer confidence.

"There has, for some time, been considerable vocal support and kind words from organisations like Tesco in support of British producers," said King. "But we're at a point now where producer confidence is such that we need to see some action."

Provisional Defra census figures show the UK beef breeding herd has declined by 3% in the year to June - about 50,000 head.

"We asked Tesco to demonstrate its commitment to UK producers in a tangible form that farmers can understand, just as we're also asking many other retailers and foodservice providers," King added.

A Tesco spokeswoman said Tesco did not set farmgate beef prices. "We remain committed to playing our part in the British beef industry and work hard to maintain positive relationships throughout the supply chain."

John Dracup, livestock director at West Country abattoir St Merryn, rejected claims that prices were being artificially squeezed. "There's a seasonal trend at this time of year when prices dip - it happens every year. And prices have firmed slightly during the past week and are currently between 193p/kg for standard beef and 198p/kg for single-suckler beef."