NFU president Ben Gill reads the papers. He doesn't take kindly to stories about farmers' foot and mouth rip-offs, intentional infection, ingratitude and odd phials. And as for Lord Haskins... Exclusive, Clive Beddall reports Ben Gill came out fighting this week. The NFU president admitted to The Grocer that he also "smelled a rat" after media reports suggested that a "high level" black propaganda campaign was being waged against the UK agri-community in the wake of foot and mouth. In an exclusive interview at the union's London headquarters, Gill declared: "Something peculiar has been going on. First, we had the accusation that farmers were ripping off the system in connection with the cleaning and disinfection of farms after FMD. "That clearly leaked in a bizarre way from government, and we suspected a junior official in DEFRA. But when the reality was revealed, 14 days later, it was proved that farmers were not ripping off the system. Yet that conclusion was only given low key coverage. "Then we had the sudden eruption of reports of farmers intentionally infecting their herds or flocks with FMD. Why did that suddenly hit the news? Who put it there? In fact, when the informant was challenged it was revealed that the story was several weeks old. "And that story came out at the same time as a phial was found on Brecon Beacons (one of the recently hit FMD areas) containing red liquid. In fact, it was actually lighting fluid and not animal blood. But finding a glass phial on the Brecon Beacons is rather like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. It all seems most bizarre. So who was doing that? "And then we had the media reporting that farmers were being over-compensated for FMD. Who suddenly gave that to the papers?" Gill is also puzzled at reports of off the record ministry briefings in certain broad sheets, the detail of which was later vehemently denied by the government. He went on: "Finally there was the report last weekend of a letter from DEFRA and former MAFF minister Elliot Morley (which described farmers as an "ungrateful lot"). This was actually written last year, when the fundamentals were very different. Why should that suddenly appear in the press?" And he added: "All this could fit government. But, equally it could fit someone on the right wing who is seeking to besmirch government for other reasons. Remember the rabid columns which have been written stating that this is all an evil plot of Europe. "I smell a rat, but I'm not sure it's been in the government's interests to do some of those things." The NFU president also responded to the government's so-called countryside Tsar, Northern Foods' non-executive chairman Lord Haskins, whose arrival in the job this week has been heralded by reports of his criticism of the farmers and their likely future role. Gill was characteristically direct: "Lord Haskins' comments are insulting to an industry which has recently gone through absolute hell. He is out of touch. "This is symptomatic of someone who has left industry, come down to Whitehall and has not had exposure to what is happening out there in the real world. It is very easy, when you come to London, to become divorced from reality. "I think it is very sad that he does not recognise what he is doing. Chris Haskins has contributed enormously to the food chain in his time. But anyone given a sensitive job such as rural recovery coordinator should realise that they should first listen to what farmers have to say before making oversimplistic analysis, which is actually quite hurtful." Gill, who recently invited the food chain to partner the NFU in a survival strategy for UK food production and agriculture, vented his frustration against the DTI for its delay in implementing the much-publicised code of trading practice for the top five multiples and their suppliers. The NFU president, who in the spring expressed anger that the farmers had not been contacted earlier in the consultation process, went on: "The code appears to have come unstuck since the election. "It's currently with the secretary of state for trade and industry. And while we are in dialogue, the talking is not very positive." And the NFU chief, who plans to step up pressure on the government to speed up the code's implementation, added: "The DTI needs to understand what the industry is about. The farmers and the food traders made more progress with their voluntary code than they have since the issue has gone into the OFT arena, and that's a tremendous shame." {{NEWS }}