5 April 2002

Centre is first step on road to reform

Food chain reform and co-operation are viewed by government as an essential

way to boost farmers incomes. This special focus takes an in-depth look at what

is happening in the grain and meat sectors, and what lessons can be learned from

organic milk. First, Andrew Shirley reports recent news of the government-backed

food chain centre. Edited by James Garner and Andrew Shirley

REFORMING the food chain is a vital component of the Curry report on the future of farming, and last week Sir Donald Currys proposals came one step closer to reality.

As a result of industry talks chaired by Prime Minister Tony Blair, DEFRA has now agreed to spend £300,000 setting up a permanent food chain centre with the objective of bringing together people from every link in the chain.

This may seem a relatively minor amount, but Sir Donald says, subject to funding, the cash will increase significantly from next year onwards. Although DEFRA has yet to commit to this, he remains confident. "Without giving guarantees I would be surprised if the money wasnt found."

The centre, based at, and facilitated by, the Institute of Grocery Distribution, will aim, in the words of the government, to provide information, analysis, training and promotion of benchmarking.

All these concepts may seem nebulous and remote from improving farm-gate prices, but Jon Woolven, director of research and development at IGD, insists increasing farmer profitability will be a key aim of the Food Chain Centre.

He says a number of projects are ready to roll and expects producers to see the results within 12 months. One of these will involve tracing a number of supply chains, including red meat, from start to finish. "We will then be able to decide how we could better design the chain to iron out inefficiencies if we were starting from scratch," explains Mr Woolven.

"An awful lot of farmers are going to struggle with the concept," admits Sir Donald. But he hopes progressive, forward-looking producers will see the food chain as an important part of their businesses. "This has to be seen as a two-way process," he urges, adding that it will be the responsibility of farmers to use the information generated by the project.

"The government needs to provide transitional help, but if the industry doesnt use the tools provided it will have wasted the opportunity."

NFU president, Ben Gill, agrees, saying that it will be up to farmers to use the results from the centres research to show best practice. He also believes that the information provided will pinpoint the sections of the food chain where people are taking out costs but not adding value.

"Malt prices are higher here than on the Continent, yet the prices for malting barley are lower. Understanding where the soft parts of the chain are is critical." &#42