from Robin Tapper, head of food & farming, National Farmers’ Union

Sir; Despite many requests from the NFU and other sectors in the food chain, there has been a failure to recognise the need for a new food chain code of practice or buyers’ charter to deal with buying relationships in the food chain.
These submissions have been countered by requests for more evidence, and repeatedly.
Meanwhile, the four major supermarkets operate behind an ineffective code and the rest of the food chain carries on with no accountability at all. Well, how much evidence is required before action is taken?
Just one month into 2005, there is clear evidence from at least two companies of a total disregard for inclusive bilateral transparent negotiation. One supermarket has written to suppliers dictating new payment terms that will result in some supplier invoices being unpaid for up to four weeks longer (‘Sainsbury plays hardball’, The Grocer, January 29, p4).
While supporting the calls for the existing statutory
Supermarket Code of Practice to be strengthened, the NFU has also been working with its food chain partners to produce a buyers’ charter. Importantly, this voluntary approach not only addresses the issues of reasonableness and fair play, which the existing code has failed to do, but also those of behaviour throughout the whole food chain.
The charter principles would promote responsible and transparent trading relationships and set out clear standards of fair and acceptable buying behaviour. Participating companies would be regularly independently audited to ensure compliance and results would be published. Importantly, the charter would cover the whole chain and all sectors within it, not only the big four.
The scale, speed and dynamic nature of the changes currently taking place in the food chain need a proportionate response. Farmers and suppliers can no longer afford to subsidise the competitive activity of the successful companies or the failings of the less successful.
Negotiation must replace diktat, fairness must replace fear and inclusiveness must replace bullying. A new charter or code would provide the framework.
If we want to maintain a competitive supply chain in the UK, then the situation cannot continue. These short-term measures place in jeopardy our long-term food manufacturing and farming industries.