Buyers have been warned that unless they ditch the sorts of abusive trading practices that have been capturing headlines in recent weeks, then the political pressure on the government to take action will become unstoppable.
Tim Bennett, president of the NFU, told its annual conference he was angered and frustrated.
He said farmers wanted to see the supermarkets code of practice tightened up but also wanted the entire industry to support the Buyers’ Charter being proposed by the NFU.
“We have been heartened by the positive response to the charter by trade associations. But unless we get more engagement from actual
businesses, I can see the political pressure for legislation becoming unstoppable,” he said.
Government action - particularly the introduction of a supermarket ombudsman - would be welcomed in some
quarters. But the NFU president warned it would not necessarily be a good thing: “My experience of government interference in the market leads me to think this could have perverse results.”
Bennett said buyers and suppliers had to focus instead on removing the tensions that existed across the food chain, adding: “This means constructing real partnerships, with long-term contracts and, above all, realistic prices.”
Defra secretary of state Margaret Beckett and food minister Lord Whitty both backed a buyers’ charter at the conference. But Beckett added to the political heat by warning supermarkets it was “not in their interests to squeeze suppliers to the point of elimination”.
Beckett said the government would consider carefully the OFT’s report into the code of practice. But the regulator this week said this would now be published in “the next few weeks” rather than this month. Asda’s trading and marketing director, Angela Spindler, told the conference her company had nothing to fear from the OFT report: “We are confident we do work to that code.”
Spindler was also relaxed about the idea of new legislation. “We would be disappointed but not concerned - given the way we trade.”
She said Asda had put partnerships with suppliers at the heart of its business model. Some delegates agreed, praising Asda for being tough but fair.
Other retailers came in for a lot of criticism. And one senior figure in the farming community said: “Asda is prepared to go the extra mile, but Tesco has been out of control since the back end of last year.”
Julian Hunt