The year of the cull? Tony Blair's rumoured plans to scrap MAFF when the FMD crisis ends raises the spectre of the food chain's interests being carved up between the DTI and the Treasury says Clive Beddall The knives are out for Nick Brown. But a rumour that Tony Blair will sack the minister, scrap the Ministry of Agriculture and dump responsibility for the food industry into the DTI has brought angry opposition from the agri-food chain. Despite a swift Commons retort from Blair in the Commons that a broadsheet report of the rumour was "nonsense", stories are circulating that he will replace MAFF with a new department of rural affairs, similar to that operated in Scotland once the FMD crisis is over. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon is favourite to become its head while Brown is consigned to the back benches. Although some MAFF officials have also privately rubbished reports of a Number 10 inspired shake up as "media prattle", there are persistent rumours that a department of rural affairs will eventually sponsor farming and a major programme of agricultural reform after the FMD crisis. However, an exclusive story in The Times has suggested that while responsibility for the food industry will go to the Department of Trade and Industry, competition policy, and issues concerning the relationship between farmers, processors and supermarkets, will be consigned to the Treasury. This notion is astounding industry observers. One multiple CEO described the idea as a "nightmare scenario". The stories, while hardly a surprise given the criticism of MAFF's handling of the FMD crisis, were attacked by many in grocery as a "kneejerk reaction" by Tony Blair. Nevertheless, Westminster was this week awash with stories that the prime minister and Nick Brown were fiercely at odds over the advisability of using vaccination to curb foot and mouth. One senior Whitehall figure told me: "The PM is under massive pressure from politicians, business and even an influential think tank to take the axe to MAFF. And he's unlikely to take notice of emotional food trade appeals to save Nick Brown's head. "We know that Nick is well thought of in the food business. But he failed to persuade the NFU to accept vaccination of animals to stem FMD, and the PM is not going to forget that in a hurry. Given the problems over FMD, there's a growing view that MAFF should be reconstructed as soon as is practicable after the crisis is over." An industry executive who attended a Chequers meeting with Blair and Brown over the vaccination issue told The Grocer: "The only time Nick Brown spoke was to ask someone to pass the water jug." However, there is a strong body of opinion within grocery that, if a major reconstruction of food and farming responsibilities does take place, the entire food chain should be kept together in a single department. A European wide inquiry into food and farming production is seen as inevitable by all branches of the UK food chain once FMD is beaten. And some senior figures into farming community were this week warning that if Blair dumps the food industry into the DTI, he is sidelining one of the UK's most important sectors. Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, told The Grocer: "Our industry must not be hived off. Speaking as a dyed in the wool Tory voter, I believe Nick Brown is the best food minister for years. "The agriculture department has got the least funding of any in government. Tony Blair must retain MAFF and give it more resources. You only have to look at the number of vets the government has cut to see the sad state of affairs. "It is grossly unfair to criticise MAFF officials for their handling of the FMD crisis. They can only be as good as their management. "And, in saying that, I am not criticising Nick Brown. If there is any blame to be accorded it should be laid at the cabinet's door. And Tony Blair has interfered far too often during the crisis." IGD chief executive Joanne Denney said: "If the speculation is correct we would be very concerned. Agriculture is a critically important part of the total food supply chain and to separate it from retailing, manufacturing and distribution would be against the ethos of working together and would ultimately be against consumer interests. "IGD is a total supply chain body and our years of experience working with all sectors of the chain leave me in no doubt that it would be a retrograde step for the industry." The PM is understood to have been impressed with the efforts of Scotland's department for rural affairs under minister Ross Finnie in dealing with foot and mouth, and wants to replicate it from London. However, industry figures with experience of both ministry systems point out that the "scenario is different north of the border", and communications lines are shorter. Meanwhile, despite a tide of media opposition to him retaining the MAFF chair after the election, supporters of Nick Brown are adamant that the PM will find it hard to sack him given that FMD is likely to be an issue for some time. Brown has already written himself into grocery folklore by uniting the food chain something its players will not want to see reversed by a hasty Blair reconstruction job. - See Opinion, page 18. {{NEWS }}