A strong reaction against the Red Tractor assurance scheme came from Sainsburys’ departing group chief executive Justin King while answering questions at the NFU conference.
When asked by a farmer why the retailer did not insist on the Red Tractor symbol on British products, Mr King argued that the scheme did not differentiate Sainsbury’s enough.
“Why would Sainsbury’s wish to lend credibility to a label that frankly anybody can stick on the front of their packaging?, ” he said.
“These kind of industry wide initiatives are the refuge of scoundrels – people wrapping themselves in the clothes but not covering the hard yards. Red tractor does not tell the customer anything special about the product or differentiate it and that’s why we don’t use the label. It doesn’t add any value.”
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Mr King made it clear he would support other assurance schemes like fair trade where he was convinced the producer had gone the extra mile to differentiate the product as special.
His speech repeatedly referred to the need to stay customer-focused and he promised to continue Sainsburys’ 145-year heritage as a retailer with strong supplier relationships.
He claimed that Sainsbury’s was sourcing 50 per cent more from British farmers now than it was seven years ago when he last spoke at an NFU conference.
Building trust with farmers through dedicated producer groups had been a priority, he said, and it had led to gains on the bottom line, improved productivity and increased sales, particularly in dairy.
The retailer intends to double British sourcing by 2020 and is investing £2.2m on 20 agricultural projects involved with research and development.
It is working hard to stay British when in season but accepts that lamb and asparagus will have to be sourced overseas when they are not available here.
“Doubling British produce doesn’t mean we will slavishly make 100 per cent commitments if it’s not right for customers around price or quality,.” warned Mr King.
Sainsbury’s also has plans to launch 50 new farming apprenticeships this summer as its contribution to bringing new talent into the industry.