Watchdog to probe anonymous retail complaints

Farmers dealt a raw deal by supermarket buyers will have their complaints investigated without fear of retribution, the government has pledged.

A new supermarket watchdog will follow up anonymous allegations in confidence, according to a consultation to be launched on Friday (5 February).

It is aimed at encouraging more farmers to highlight unscrupulous practices without running the risk of seeing their contracts terminated by Britain’s big retailers.

But it remains to be seen how many producers will speak out.

The watchdog will enforce a strengthened code of practice overseeing the relationship between retailers and their suppliers.

Launched by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, the 12-week consultation will help determine watchdog’s exact powers.

It will help ministers decide the best way for the watchdog to operate – as well as the penalties it will impose.

Government minister Kevin Brennan said he was determined to ensure compliance with the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP).

“Today we’re pushing ahead with our plans for a new body that will help to ensure free and fair competition and that the grocery supply market continues to work in the long-term best interest of consumers.

“It’s important to hear people’s views on exactly how the body should operate, its nature and exact role.

“This consultation will enable us to take an informed and responsible decision on the make up of the new body that will strike the right balance between suppliers, the supermarkets and consumers.”

Junior DEFRA minister Jim Fitzpatrick said the new body will would help ensure consumers had access to high quality food and that farmers received a fair deal.

“The consultation will give farmers, food producers, consumers and retailers the chance to say how this balance should work.”

The launch of the consultation comes the day after the new code of practice came into force.

The government said it was keen for the new body to be established as soon as possible.
Retailers have been accused of making retrospective demands for money and changing trading terms just days before implementation of the code.

The NFU accused retailers of sustained bully-boy tactics against suppliers ahead of the code, which contains guidelines on fair dealing.

But Farmers Weekly was unable to find any producer willing to name names out of fear they would be identified.

NFU president Peter Kendall said: “In the past ten days, I have heard how suppliers to major retailers have faced some of the most unreasonable demands for retrospective payments and changes to trading terms that we’ve ever seen.”

Retailers were effectively launching pre-emptive strikes against farmers before protection afforded by the new code came into force, said Mr Kendall.

They were squeezing the very life blood out of British producers.

“The whole supply chain should be working together to meet the long term challenges that the food system faces; feeding a growing global population while impacting less on the environment.”

The British Retail Consortium rejected claims that supermarkets were giving farmers a raw deal.

Retailers did not control the food chain but were simply one link in a complex process from production to consumer, it said.

See also: Supermarkets face strengthened code of practice