21 March 1997

Climbing out of an abyss…

NFU leader, Sir David Naish, reviews the unions role in the events of the past 12 months in an exclusive interview with Shelley Wright

THE NFU had no prior warning of Mr Dorrells announcement on a possible link between BSE and CJD. It was as big a shock for Sir David as it was for the rest of the industry.

"As COPA (EU farm unions group) president, I was presenting the European farmers case to the agriculture committee of the European Parliament on Mar 20 last year. Then a UK MEP came in holding up the Mirror, the headline from which we all remember to this day," Sir David recalls.

His abiding memory of those first few days is the phone calls from farmers desperate to know what was going to happen next. "Like everyone else I didnt know what the future held, yet these people were facing the biggest abyss which one could possibly imagine.

"There were people, if not saying, then certainly intimating that the entire bovine herd in the UK would have to be slaughtered. And really – I suppose Im a softy – deep down, those impassioned pleas for help had more effect on me than anything else over the whole 12 months."

On Mar 21, 1996 the NFU realised that the BSE crisis was not just an issue for farmers but for the entire food industry. So Sir David arranged a meeting with representatives from the manufacturing, catering and retail trades who agreed that they could no longer use any beef from cattle over 30 months old.

"I went to see the minister and said we had to have an over-30-months scheme (OTMS), which he said he would consider," Sir David says. The next day the scheme was approved by the Cabinet.

The OTMS did its job in providing consumer confidence, Sir David maintains. But it also led to the collapse in farmer confidence in the government when Mr Hogg announced a 10% cut in the payment rate in September last year.

"We had no warning at all of that and I still say it was an ill-informed, crass decision," says Sir David, adding that to penalise the farmers involved was unforgivable.

"It was not only insensitive, it was disingenuous and ungrateful to farmers who had been patient."

The anger felt around the country culminated in a huge rally outside the Tory Party Conference in Brighton, followed by NFU councils vote of no confidence in Mr Hogg.

Sir David was dispatched by the council to deliver that message to Mr Major. "The reaction from Number 10 was one of extreme disappointment that it had come to this, but, I suppose as I would have expected, there was also a clear statement that ministers were appointed by the Prime Minister and not by farmers," he says.

Over the year, while he refuses to go so far as saying MAFF has let farmers down, he says that the ministry has failed on a range of issues to ensure there was proper industry consultation.

With the OTMS price cut, the dithering over the selective cull, then the E coli scares and suggestions that MAFF had tried to suppress reports on poor abattoir hygiene, the Ministrys failure to inform the industry undermined farmers attempts to ensure consumers had confidence in what they were eating, he says.

But he also accepts that the NFUs policy on the selective cull has undergone a U-turn. The union opposed the scheme when Mr Hogg and MAFF officials offered a selective cull to their EU counterparts in April and May last year, because there was no justification for it.

While that was still the case when Mr Major agreed to the cull as part of the Florence deal, Sir David realised that there was no possibility of lifting the beef ban without the cull.

"Ministers and senior civil servants around Europe all told him that unless the UK implemented the selective cull, as agreed, then EU consumers would believe the British were not doing what they had promised to get rid of BSE.

"So we then realised that the cull was perhaps the lesser of two evils and, in the interests of the greater good, it should go ahead."

Sir David puts no timetable on when the beef ban might be lifted. But he insists that the way forward for the industry is through farm assurance, which is independently audited. And that means farmers must agree to pay the cost.

"Deep down, my heart tells me that unless we take this step then others in other member states will, and we will lose our markets.

"And there is no point in being a farmer if nobody is going to eat what you produce." &#42

NFU leader Sir David Naish (left) with farms minister, Douglas Hogg.