I'm a small supplier trying to build links with bigger retailers. I need more advice, but right now I'm about to despair. Not because there's no one I can turn to, but because there's too many groups around. MAFF originally set up six regional food groups under the speciality food group grant scheme. Food From Britain administered and managed the scheme on MAFF's behalf. The groups are comprised of smaller, more local, county-based organisations. The first such group ­ Taste of the West ­ was formed in 1992. Heart of England Fine Foods was the last to be created in 1998. The number of groups was reduced to five when Middle-England Fine Foods, launched in 1995, was disbanded. FFB continued to set up similar groups in other areas and now co-ordinates 17 such organisations. They cover a distance stretching from the Isle of Wight to the Scottish highlands and islands. But now there are other groups springing up with similar functions, causing greater and greater confusion. Groups performing similar roles to the FFB organisations, if on a smaller scale, are extremely difficult to count, because they often operate independently of each other. And devolution is making the situation worse, according to Sir Don Curry, who says in the Policy Commission's report on the Future of Farming and Food: "There is a risk that as we fragment, our ability to deliver a single, clear message which consumers understand, trust and believe will be deflected." "We won't do it unless we merge much of the promotional activity to deliver that strong message." The future of the UK food industry depends on the vital work food groups do to help unite the food chain and encourage sustainable local sourcing. Curry highlights the importance of these aims in the Policy Commission's report on the Future of Farming and Food (Pg 14): "The disconnection between supplier, processor and retailer is damaging efficiency." And he makes the point that consolidation elsewhere in the food chain will put pressure on producers to become more competitive, collaborative and better at marketing. Consequently (Pg 17), "Farmers and farmers' groups that work closely with supermarkets and processors, and that are in touch with the consumer, can do good business." Food groups represent a sector worth £3.6bn in annual sales according to Food From Britain ­ a figure retailers can't afford to ignore either. The multiples certainly believe local and regional food groups provide a valuable service in forging links between producers and retailers. Safeway communications director Kevin Hawkins says: "There is a role for intermediary groups to explain the market and the realities of supplying big multiple retailers. "Would we make more use of these groups going forward? Yes." Sainsbury's Regionality Manager Jane Wakeling says FFB groups have linked it with suppliers through its Supplier Development Programmes, Meet the Buyer and Meet the Supplier programmes across the UK. FFB group Taste of the South East brought Wakeling together with local producers showcasing their wares at the South of England Show. Taste of the South East chief executive Sue Scott comments: "I felt there was a genuine desire from Sainsbury's for all the local products and already Jane and I are working towards the future and planning further shows and bigger ideas." Meanwhile, Waitrose clinched a supply deal with local producers in the south of England earlier this year to supply locally produced products to select stores. The deal was negotiated with the help of FFB regional food groups such as Taste of the West and Taste of Anglia. But as Defra discusses its autumn response to Curry, time for these issues to be resolved is running out. ADD IN STUFF FROM DEFRA RE WORKING OUT STRATEGY TO DEVELOP AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY ADD IN QUOTE FROM LORD WHITTY DEFINITION: Food groups are now facing a crisis revolving around three major issues: what their role is, how they are coordinated and how they are funded. These issues must be addressed if these groups are to be as instrumental as they seek to be in aiding a revolution in the UK food chain. Deciding what constitutes a local food group is the first problem. Sometimes the discussion revolves around definitions of the term local' and local sourcing'. Food From Britain director of business and UK services Charlotte Lawson admits: "There is a great deal of confusion over terms such as regional', speciality', local' and locality'." In her speech at the Plunkett Foundation's farmer marketing groups seminar, Adding Value to the Local Food Economy, Lawson admits: "More work needs to be done to determine what we mean by locality' foods in order that we are all clear about the parameters ­ and scope ­ of our activities." Some people use local sourcing' to refer to retailers sourcing food and drink from within a limited radius of their location. Others argue that some foods cannot be sourced so close to the retailer, possibly because they are not native to the area. ROLE: NEEDS STUFF ABOUT WHAT THEY ALL DO (ALSO PUT THIS IN A BOX AT BOTTOM) and CO-ORDINATION: According to this position, local and regional food groups could exist partly to help smaller food and drink suppliers extend distribution over a wider area. These groups link small specialist food and drink producers with retailers, helping them understand each other's supply and distribution requirements. They run a trade database of retail buyers as well as subsidising training for producers. And they provide manufacturers with marketing advice, helping them showcase their talents through trade shows and promotions. One such promotion is A Taste of The Nation, launched in June in partnership with Selfridges. The deal will see the London-based retailer displaying food and drink products from a different UK region every month until December 2002. FFB also promotes UK produce overseas, describing itself as a "strategic international export marketing agency". However, FFB director of business and UK services Charlotte Lawson argues this does not mean it offers less help to smaller suppliers operating only in the UK: "Our remit used to be more focused on exports, but it was changed five years ago to promoting regional food and drink companies in the UK and overseas." But other groups claim FFB does not adequately represent the interests of smaller local producers. F3, the Foundation for Local Food Initiatives is one of these groups. F3 director Charles Couzens comments: "There is a problem with local food groups because of their emphasis on exports ­ it's the same with FFB. "Another problem is that for smaller local associations to receive funding from FFB, they have to be members. They are put off by a £300 per year membership fee." F3 places a strong emphasis on benefiting local economies, the environment and the community. It offers producers similar services to FFB, but Couzens says it is better suited to helping micro-producers: "We're talking to small producer businesses and processors: farm shops, farmers market stallholders ­ commodity producers catering for a local market. "Our conclusion for those people is: don't go to supermarkets because the fit isn't right. Go to local shops, independents and small convenience chains." F3 has helped set up several projects such as the Food Links network in conjunction with the government, local councils, health, development and community organisations. Food Links is made up of about 30 groups across the UK, which are similar to FFB's county-based food groups. At the moment, Food Links groups are co-ordinated by regional bodies, as are FFB's county-based groups. One such body is the South West Local Food Partnership, which was set up three years ago. Paul Sander-Jackson, project manager for Somerset Food Links and director of the South West Local Food Partnership, explains: "The Partnership facilitates the sharing of best practice. We act as a learning exchange and an advocate for the food link groups to the Regional Development Agency. "Our emphasis is on smaller scale suppliers. Most are linked to smaller retailers, not large supermarkets because of the supply issue. "We're moving to the next scale up ­ co-ops ­ although we don't exclude multiples. "Our role compliments FFB. It's a question of balance. We'd like to see the proportion of foods promoted and sold locally increased, but it would be naive and parochial to limit local' right down." The Soil Association was also instrumental in setting up Food Link groups. Joy Carey is network development officer for the Food Works project, run by the Soil Association in partnership with the Countryside Agency. She says the Food Links groups focus on local sourcing issues more than FFB. She also says they are more concerned with primary producers, such as fruit and vegetable suppliers: "Food From Britain is not promoting primary produce so much, but rather speciality and premium products." Carey says Food Links wants to work alongside FFB, recognising that the two organisations could compliment each other: "FFB has well-established links with secondary producers and it looks at regional distribution issues a lot more." Other than FFB, F3 and Food Links, several smaller independent groups are popping up, serving manufacturers and retailers in their immediate area. It would be impossible to list all these groups, but to give a flavour, the Food and Drink Forum supports food and drink manufacturers and processors in the Midlands. It provides training, advice and support to help launch and develop new businesses in the sector. FUNDING WE NEED QUOTES FROM PEOPLE SAYING HOW CONFUSING IT ALL IS - TO BACK UP OUR ORIGINAL PREMISE AND SOMETHING ELSE FROM LAWSON? CONCLUSION {{FEATURES }}