17 May 1996

Sainsbury goes for potato partnerships

ABOUT 500 potato growers supplying supermarket giant Sains-bury will have to adopt the companys integrated crop management policy after an agreement between the firm and seven main suppliers.

Customer concerns over food production methods meant it was important to improve the way crops were grown, said Bob Hilborn, Sainsburys head of primary agriculture, at the launch of the Partnership in Produce scheme for potatoes on Monday. "We see ICM as a way of doing that."

The scheme, a long-term agreement between grower, supplier and retailer, aims to secure top quality supplies of produce throughout the year by focusing on planning and technical advice.

It was first launched last August with fruit co-op ENFRU and quickly extended to include four vegetable co-ops. Latest signings with potato packers MBM March, E S Black, Higgins Agriculture, QV Foods, Dalgety Produce, Whitworths Foods and PMB Sutton Bridge mark the schemes first arable sector appearance.

It means 70% of Sainsburys annual throughput of 250,000t of potatoes will be grown according to the companys ICM policy, based on NFU/multiple retailer protocols. The firm is aiming for 90% eventually, said Ian Merton, director of produce buying.

The company defines ICM as "a combination of responsible crop management practices which balance the economic production of crops with measures which conserve and enhance the environment."

Emphasis is placed on preventative methods of pest and disease control and the conservation of resources like fertiliser, pesticides and fuel through good management.

Audit checks will be carried out by Sainsburys through occasional farm visits, said Mr Merton. Packers will also carry out their own checks with growers.

Packers welcomed the scheme. "Public confidence in our products is absolutely vital. Nothing demonstrates that more than the recent BSE scare, where a whole sector of the industry has been affected in the short, medium and long term, some of it irreversibly," said John Manchett, managing director of Cambs-based MBM March.

"We must ensure we adopt the very best practice at all levels."

Many growers are pushing for information to help them do just that, maintained Tony Worth, farmer and managing director of QV Foods, Holbeach, Lincs. "The best growers are well down the ICM route already. It makes economic sense."

Like other packers, his agronomy team will work closely with growers to help them produce the maximum amount of top quality potatoes in an environmentally acceptable way.

Sainsburys will also hold regular meetings to provide technical and commercial advice.

Growers will not receive additional premiums. But it is hoped that planned production and the use of selected packers across the country would improve efficiency by allowing higher throughput and reduced distribution costs. Those benefits, together with advice to maximise crop use, should mean better returns for growers. &#42

&#8226 Planned markets for growers.

&#8226 Regular technical and commercial meetings to maximise crop use.

&#8226 Better understanding of needs and problems on both sides.

&#8226 Improved public confidence.

&#8226 Better returns expected.

Potatoes are off to a flying start under Sainsburys new Partnership in Produce scheme at MBM Marchs packing station in Cambs.