Brown: chain is off the hook "It is clear to me the outbreak is nothing to do with supermarkets or the modern supermarkets' supply chain. Nor is it to do with the number of abattoirs." The minister of agriculture this week drew a line in the sand as flak flew about the food chain when he agreed to talk exclusively to The Grocer's editor Clive Beddall about the FMD epidemic Supermarkets are not to blame for the foot and mouth disease crisis, despite widespread allegations to the contrary. That was the verdict of agriculture minister Nick Brown in an exclusive interview with The Grocer at his Whitehall office this week. And after defending the prime minister's controversial claim that the multiples had the farmers in "an armlock", the minister hit back at critics of the supermarkets' "just in time" delivery methods, and hinted that there could be government cash to help the meat industry regain markets once the epidemic is over. Speaking soon after an emergency cabinet meeting to debate the crisis, a defiant Brown also explained his controversial headline-making assurance that the crisis was "under control," despite the number of confirmed cases of the disease topping 200. Following predictions of a major government sponsored inquiry, perhaps even a Royal Commission into farming which could turn the government spotlight back on to multiple power, the minister said: "I have asked for three pieces of work to be undertaken within my department: how did the virus get into this country and on to the farm that we believe was the original cause of the outbreak; is there anything in the way the supply chain works which makes us more vulnerable to outbreaks of disease; and are our controls working properly? Clearly, this virus has come from abroad. And while I don't want to preempt the reviews I have put in place, it is clear to me the outbreak is nothing to do with supermarkets or the modern supermarkets' supply chain. Nor is it to do with the number of abattoirs." However, the minister admitted he was concerned about the way in which small independent farmers handled livestock and used pig swill as animal feed. "There must also be concerns about the way local markets function, especially with the movement of very large numbers of sheep, which are largely driven by dealers." But while he firmly rejected media reports that MAFF was concerned about the multiples' just in time' delivery policies, the minister went on: "The only reason we might worry about just in time' is not about disease control reasons, but whether issues come to the fore when supply is interrupted. "Are we more likely to get food shortages because of the interruption of just in time delivery? But while that is something we will want to consider in an inquiry, I believe the benefits of just in time' systems are substantial. And I cannot see that the system played any part in the disease outbreak." However, Brown, while repeating his oft-heard view that he " liked supermarkets" also believed that the prime minister was "effectively right" when he suggested the multiples have the farmers in an armlock. He went on: "The supply chain does not have an even distribution of power. The big retailers are in a very strong position. And that's something they, themselves, recognise. After all, they joined with MAFF, farmers, processors and caterers to devise a voluntary code of trading practice which has since been picked up by the Competition Commission. "But, remember, even the Competition Commission inquiry gave the big retailers a pretty clean bill of health. They picked out two issues: aggressive pricing where retailers are in close competition and, secondly, the supply question, and now a statutory code is being devised." But wasn't it an unhelpful statement from the PM, given the chains were meeting with the farmers to find ways of beating the foot and mouth disease crisis? "I don t think the prime minister would have been aware that that work was going on, although I know he attaches great importance to the efforts we have made in MAFF to try to draw the supply chain together. "Having said that, I would pay particular tribute to Joanne Denney and the IGD for bringing the various parties together with a voluntary code which was, after all, the first initiative of its kind ever in the retail trade sector. "There are all sorts of charges made against the modern supply chain which can be dealt with by a clear and explicit code of practice to which people can refer when disputes arise. "I think it will be a tremendously useful tool for the whole industry and also a very good way of drawing the supply chain together rather than encouraging adversarial relationships. Remember, the industry, working together, drew up a voluntary code so claims that this has had to be imposed are not correct." After praising the public ("They have been tremendous") for not indulging in too much panic buying of meat at the start of the crisis, the minister urged shoppers to look for the Meat and Livestock Commission label on packs and continue to Buy British' wherever possible. Despite an influx of imported product to make up for a shortfall in home produced, Brown has no doubts UK shoppers will rapidly return to British product once the crisis is over. He hinted the government could provide cash to help the UK meat industry rebuild markets with special promotions once the fmd crisis is over. "We are looking at everything. Having said that, demand for our meat is very strong, and that's because we are able to explain and justify the quality assurance schemes. "Consumers are also aware of our strong public protection measures, not least because the new Food Standards Agency spells them out. I believe there is a very strong case for buying British." In addition, the plight of rural shops hit by the restrictions imposed as a result of the crisis would also be an issue for the government's task force which is looking into the effects of fmd on rural life. Meanwhile, the minister emphatically rejected media reports that the Irish government was angry at MAFF's handling of the fmd crisis. Despite criticism of the way the government has handled the crisis from a Dublin junior minister who said Britain was now the "leper of Europe", Brown went on: "Joe Walsh, the Irish agriculture minister, has assured me that he and his government are supporting us. They believe we are doing everything that's necessary to see this terrible outbreak through to extinction." But was he surprised that the Irish Food Board had pulled out of this month's IFE food and drink exhibition in London because of the fmd crisis? "Decisions taken by another EU member state are, of course, a matter for them. But we should never overlook just how important the livestock sector is for the Irish Republic and how difficult a disease outbreak could be for them. They're absolutely determined that they will not get it in their country, and I don't blame them." But should IFE be cancelled in view of the crisis? "The food industry in this country has a great, positive story to tell. Just because we have an animal disease outbreak doesn't mean we should cease to focus on all the other good things." The only time the soft spoken Brown's countenance turns into a frown is at the mention of media jibes that he is not in control. Despite a deluge of scorn at his much publicised claim the outbreak was "under control", the minister was defiant. "It is under control. We are using some of the most powerful control measures the supply chain has ever been put under. It's difficult to see what more one could do. "There is complete prohibition of exports of any material which might spread the infectivity. And although it has reached France, I regret that very much indeed and I am writing to French agriculture minister Jean Glavany to express my regret and sorrow. "Domestically, we have imposed tough movement restrictions to make sure that animals which are most vulnerable to the infectivity don't spread it while we bear down on the disease. "What people don't always readily understand is that when there are new cases it is not because of the diseases spreading yesterday, it is because of what has incubated in the animals for, perhaps, up to a fortnight before. So I cannot, by any action I take today, control what may happen tomorrow. "We have the disease very firmly under control, but it is a biological phenomenon, so I cannot predict where the disease will emerge, nor do I know how much of it is out there. Given these uncertainties I have to compose a policy which will cope with either a large, or a small amount of infectivity. Our policy is right, but the amount of resources we require is far greater." {{NEWS }}