Consumers all right, Jack… and thats that

1 May 1998




Consumers all right, Jack… and thats that

Judge us by our results, invited prime minister Tony Blair a

year ago. So whats the verdict on farming? In this news

special, Johann Tasker looks back on

Jack Cunninghams first year in office

ONE year on, the accusation is clear: Jack Cunningham doesnt listen to farmers. Its not quite true, of course. But theres a growing feeling that hes a little hard of hearing when it comes to looking after agricultural interests.

"As soon as I was appointed [farm minister], I made it clear that my number one priority was to meet the needs of consumers," Dr Cunningham announced last May. "That means safeguarding their health and well-being. Food safety is, and will continue to be, top of my agenda."

Many farmers are still reeling from the shock of a farm minister who puts consumer interests ahead of the producer. But Dr Cunningham soon got down to business. He had hardly settled behind his desk before scrapping farmers role as ministry advisers. And soon afterwards, he revealed plans to revamp his department and set up a Food Standards Agency (FSA) to monitor food safety and quality issues.

It promises to be the most radical shake-up of UK food policy since World War II. In farming terms, its effects will have wide reaching effects.

One response

"Theres only one way the farming industry can respond to this," says Prof Michael Winter, an expert in rural politics at Cheltenham and Gloucestershire College. "That is to take it on board entirely, and recognise that food quality and safety are paramount issues. What else can the NFU say? There is no point in trying to fight these interests – youve got to go with them."

DrCunningham became farm minister at a time when public confidence in the ministry was dangerously low. The BSE crisis, a series of high-profile food scares and accusations that MAFFs policy advisers had vested interests in the profitability of food production had seen to that.

The writing has been on the farmyard wall for 12 months now, if not for Dr Cunningham, then certainly for MAFF. After 50 years, responsibility for food issues will be wrenched from the ministry and placed in the hands of the FSA. MAFF will be given a new remit and renamed, possibly as the Ministry of Rural Affairs. Or the Ministry of the Countryside. Or even the Ministry of Food.

Cautious welcome

Although given a cautious welcome by the NFU, the idea of a divorce between food and farmer privately casts fear into many hearts. The word "marginalisation" is almost whispered by NFU spokesmen. But Dr Cunningham is sticking to his guns.

Consumer pressure groups believe he has already gone some way towards rebuilding public trust in food safety. But rather than saying "we told you so", they blame the need for a MAFF revamp on 50 years of UK and EU farm policy rather than on the farmers themselves.

"Intensive farming methods have a bad effect on food quality," says Rory Hegarty, spokesman for the National Consumer Council. "But I dont think anyone blames farmers for that – its perfectly reasonable for them to try and maximise their profits, especially when times are hard."

Despite his ambition to crown the consumer as king, Dr Cunningham retains a view that some farmers are more equal than others. After revealing plans to pay hill farmers £25,000 each to get out of beef production, he now wants to give more to organic farmers who, unlike beef farmers, produce food "that the consumer wants."

Unlikely critics

That has led to accusations that Dr Cunningham may be harbouring a belief in efficiency and competitiveness without realising just how complex the real issues are. Some of his critics lurk in unlikely corners.

"Im worried about his free market tendencies," says Patrick Holden, director of the pro-organic Soil Association. "If efficiency means food at the lowest profitable price regardless of damage to the environment, then I dont sign up to that agenda. And if competitiveness means competing with people who pay slave wages and use inputs which damage consumer health, then we shouldnt go down that road either."

Furthermore, when it comes to food production, consumers often lack some of the answers, Mr Holden says. So although he welcomes the advent of the FSA, he is worried that separating it from MAFF completely could result in a "food police".

"The question is, what is Dr Cunningham going to deliver?," he asks. "I havent lost hope because hes saying the right things – especially concerning expansion of the organic sector. But I have to say, the jurys still out."

Whether Prime minister Tony Blair gives Dr Cunningham enough time to get the FSA up and running remains to be seen. But while most consumers will remember Dr Jack for championing their cause, in the minds of farmers, he will always be the minister who banned beef on the bone.

Dr Cunningham is said to give farming only a sideways glance.

Jacks year

May 1997

&#8226 Labour wins a landslide election victory. Jack Cunningham tightens his grip on his Cumbrian constituency with 58.1% of the vote and an 11,929 majority.

&#8226 A "surprised" Dr Cunningham is appointed Labours first farm minister in 18 years. He announces that consumers – rather than farmers – will be his first priority.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham ends a 25-year-old government relationship with agriculture by dropping farmers as local advisers to MAFFs regional panels in England. Its "time to move on", he says.

June

&#8226 Dr Cunningham threatens to ban beef imports unless Germany and other EU countries step up their anti-BSE controls. "If they dont act, I will," he says. "This is no game. This is no bluff. The draft orders are in my briefcase."

&#8226 At the Royal Show, Dr Cunningham tells reporters that farm subsidies must be scrapped. "The days of high subsidies are over," he says. "I do not consider that taxpayers are prepared to pay subsidies to farmers on a permanent basis simply because theyre farmers." EU aid should be used to rejuvenate rural areas, encourage jobs and protect the countryside, he says.

July

&#8226 EU officials seize 700t of beef illegally exported from Britain to Holland. A further 900t of British beef is thought to have been illegally exported to Russia and Egypt. Dr Cunningham promises "criminal proceedings" and closes two UK meat plants alleged to have exported the beef.

&#8226 Leaked Brussels documents reveal that Agenda 2000 proposals for CAP reform could slash farm support prices by 30%. Dr Cunningham says the proposals dont go far enough: "The CAPs flaws are manifest. It drives up prices for the consumer, it burdens farmers with bureacracy, it imposes false production controls and is open to fraud."

August

&#8226 EU countries report only one in every six cases of BSE, according to a survey published in The Veterinary Record. The survey adds credence to Dr Cunninghams claims that anti-BSE controls are less effective in Europe than in the UK.

September

&#8226 Dr Cunningham pulls out of an EU farm ministers meeting in Brussels, citing "personal reasons." During the meeting, Germany rejects sweeping reform of the CAP. But Dr Cunningham says radical reform and a reduction in farm subsidies is vital to enable Eastern European accession to the EU.

&#8226 The EU scientific veterinary committee accepts UK proposals to export beef from certified herds – but only for areas with computerised traceability systems.

October

&#8226 MAFF announces a new cattle cull as part of its proposals to lift the export ban on UK beef. Dr Cunningham asks Brussels to approve the export of beef from cattle born after Aug 1, 1996.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham says Agenda 2000 plans for CAP reform should go further. "Speaking for the UK, I would of course like the proposals to be even more far reaching," he says.

November

&#8226 An EU report condemning illegal UK beef exports is milder than expected. Dr Cunningham says the governments "new approach" to Europe is paying off.

December

&#8226 Government figures reveal a massive drop in farm incomes. Farm leaders ask Dr Cunningham to apply for £960m in EU compensation because the strong £ has cut the value of subsidies and support payments. Dr Cunningham refuses, saying there is "no pot of gold in Brussels."

&#8226 About 400 Welsh farmers hurl 40t of Irish beefburgers into the sea at Holyhead. The port is blockaded for 10 hours and lorries carrying Irish beef are turned back onto the ferries.

&#8226 The protests spread to other parts of Britain. Scottish farmers blockade the port of Stranraer and a further 250 farmers bring traffic to a standstill at Dovers Eastern Docks. Prime minister Tony Blair urges farmers to abide by the law.

&#8226 Beef on the bone is banned after evidence shows a link between bone marrow and new variant CJD. Dr Cunningham says "I have acted swiftly within the powers I have to protect the public."

&#8226 The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Rt Rev Jim Thompson, attacks Dr Cunningham for failing to "alleviate the distress and severe economic difficulties" faced by hill farmers.

&#8226 Farmers pelt Dr Cunningham with eggs and flour when he arrives in Carlisle to take part in the BBC radio programme, Any Questions.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham announces a public inquiry into BSE. The crisis has "been, literally, a disaster," he says. In the same speech, Dr Cunningham says the beef industry must be restructured "so that it becomes economically and environmentally sustainable." A pledge of £85m of aid to livestock producers fails to quell fears that the industry will go the same way as the miners.

&#8226 Scottish hotelier, Jim Sutherland, serves T-bone steaks to 170 people at a "prohibition dinner" in Berwickshire. "The beef on the bone ban is absurd," he says.

January 1998

&#8226 Dr Cunningham bans imports of EU beef unless they meet the UKs BSE safety standards.

&#8226 The EU Presidency passes to the UK. Dr Cunningham becomes president of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham tells delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference that a ceiling on CAP subsidies would be a "perverse nonsense."

February

&#8226 Dr Cunningham tells farmers at the NFU in London that he wont apply for aid from Brussels but promises to keep the issue under review.

&#8226 Average farm incomes plummeted 46% in 1997, government statistics reveal.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham shelves plans to charge farmers £70m for new anti-BSE measures in abbatoirs and the cost of the new cattle database.

March

&#8226 An estimated 280,000 rural people attend the Countryside March in London to protest at the Governments rural policies. The demonstration is one of the largest ever seen in the UK.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham begins consultation on plans to pay farmers about £25,000 each to get out of beef farming.

&#8226 EU farm ministers vote to lift the beef export ban for certified herds in Northern Ireland.

April

&#8226 A Scottish judge dismisses the case against Mr Sutherland – the first prosecution brought under the governments beef on the bone ban. Dr Cunningham responds by insisting that the ban remains in force.

&#8226 Speculation increases that Dr Cunningham will be moved from MAFF in a widely predicted Cabinet reshuffle expected after the UK presidency of the EU ends in June.


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