By Simon Wragg

BEEF and sheep producers must widen their supply base and deal “as little as possible” with over-powerful supermarkets if they want to stay in business, warns Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association.

Speaking this week at the Ardingly Showground, West Sussex, he led a searing attack on supermarkets which, he claimed, had become too big “to be bouncing around our industry like loose cannons”. He wanted their buying power to be capped.

The crowded hall of producers, invited by South East Marts, heard Mr Forster warn that retailers were out to deal with only the most efficient units.

Cherry-picking

“They are taking the cherry-picking route, make no mistake. Nobody can survive unless efficient, but I hate to see the retailers steam-rolling philosophy that puts even moderately efficient units out of business.”

Mr Forster insisted the time had come for retailers to “realise the wider responsibilities” which come with power .

Tesco director Steven Murrell was quick to quash accusations of profiteering. “Its a sad indictment when making net margins of 5.8% is a sin.”

While accepting that both producers and retailers had to make sufficient margin to survive, Mr Murrell attacked Mr Forsters intention to drag producers back to traditional supply routes.

“The future of your business depends on whether you, like retailers, respond to consumer demand or listen to the solitary voice of one man seemingly determined to turn back the clock,” he warned.

Live auctions

He dismissed the accusation that retailers were against live auctions. “Over 40% of lamb we sell comes through that route.” And while not ruling out a return to the ringside he stated that the fluctuating prices of marts “was the bane of a retailers life”.

Mr Forster also attacked the deadweight system. It was dogged with varying criteria which made it impossible for to compare returns. “We need transparency,” he said.

Producers evidently wanted more help from the NBA. Accepting its warning to widen supply bases, many wanted help finding new markets. “It will be on a self-help basis,” said Mr Forster.