5 June 1998


Wholesaler view on feed and MBM

I write in response to your Leader (May 22) to correct a misunderstanding about our approach to the use of meat and bonemeal in animal rations and which suggests ignorance of an industry committed to long term investment, both on the production and processing sides.

My address to conference, which had food safety as its central theme, touched on issues which are set out in our strategy papers, which you have had for some time and on which you were briefed on Apr 22 and reported. MBM is one of those issues.

Our beef strategy paper states "In view of the withdrawal of the by-products support scheme for understandable reasons, we urge the government to prepare a plan for the re-incorporation of meat and bonemeal into pig and poultry rations to the same standards as are applied in the remainder of the EU at the earliest opportunity. This would eliminate the unfair advantage currently enjoyed by our European competitors".

That is not "short termism, or naked self interest", nor is it a matter only for the processing sector. The full brunt of the reduction in the value of by products since the end of the rendering subsidy has been borne by primary producers; not only of cattle, but also of sheep and pigs. If farmers are prepared for a permanent ban on MBM in stock rations, they must also accept that British animals will permanently achieve lower values and returns on the home market than our competitors.

That was never an issue about feeding ruminant material back to ruminants. I quote again from my address: "Our federation strongly believes in a long term goal of putting meat and bonemeal back into animal food rations even if it has to be exported to achieve this end initially. The cost to industry and to GB plc of the loss of this valuable protein source makes no sense while other European and world-wide countries continue to use it, and at the same time export their meat to us. In addition, renderers need to see a light at the end of their tunnel if they are to be persuaded to invest substantial sums in a new generation rendering equipment". Why invest to comply with the latest EC directive on the production of meat and bonemeal if there is no return?

The regulations introduced since the BSE crisis are major factors behind the falling values of cattle, sheep and pigs. If this cost burden stands no chance of being lifted in the pursuit of the Holy Grail of consumer confidence, it will be financially painful for our industry, and scientific nonsense.

The reason for substantial support at the conference was because the audience set my references to the future use of MBM against Prof Pattisons speech and discussions of our strategy papers.

I regret and deplore the tone of your tabloid-style editorial over an issue about which you had prior full knowledge.

Richard Cracknell

President, Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers, 227 Central Markets, London.

No need to ban UK MBM

Judging from your hysterical outburst (Leader, May 22) against the FFMWs call for restoration of meat and bonemeal as a legal feed ingredient, one would think the meat industry was advocating force feeding of all livestock with MBM.

We know that the major supermarkets will require the exclusion of MBM in feed fed to British stock. But they will continue unconcernedly to sell imported pork and poultry fed more cheaply on MBM in Europe with, paradoxically, little or no reaction from consumers or media.

There is no reason to ban MBM made in the UK. After all, retailers can buy any amount of British meat with whatever feeding regime they require.

The point of the FFMWs call for restoration of MBMs legal status is to remove the tremendous burden carried by the livestock sector, which is paying for its destruction. MBM can be sold in Europe and worldwide to less inhibited producers and consumers.

To leave this ban in place in the UK is to disadvantage our farmers in the EU market to such an extent that the industrys decline is fast becoming a foregone conclusion. The FFMWs cry is on behalf of livestock producers, not against them.

You headed your Leader of the previous week: "Only fair crack of the whip can restore UK farm competitiveness", and concluded: "The key question is will UK producers be allowed to fight fairly on with one hand tied behind their back?".

Paul Cheale

Cheale Meats, Little Warley, Brentwood.

FWmissed the points on beef

Your leader (May 22) and the accompanying article (News, May 22) seem to miss several fundamental points. The Federation of Freshmeat Wholesalers statement highlights some incredible facts, that, maybe, we all make assumptions about.

After all the fuss about MBM being fed to British beef, and the encouragement by companies like MacDonalds to eat European beef, youd think we could safely assume that MBM was not fed to Continental beef.

How wrong we are. That is not the case and I suggest that if consumers knew the truth, they would regularly question the source of their supermarket purchase.

I remember in the heady days of post-election euphoria, farm minister Jack Cunningham pledged that if Europe didnt bring its beef up to British standards in every aspect, including feed and traceability, he would ban the import of European beef on health grounds.

The same should apply to imports from Ireland, America and Africa.

Past experience tells us stock can be sent half round the world and so long as it enters Britain via an authorised source, it appears to be acceptable. But irresponsible traders, from producers and hauliers to slaughterers and retailers will bend the rules if they think they can get away with it.

All products must be labelled to declare the country of origin. It is no longer good enough to hide behind the EU packed in Britain label, which lulls consumers into thinking theyre buying and supporting British.

Rosemary Allen

40 Swansholme Gardens, Sandy, Beds.

Return of post wanted

With the advent of the British Cattle Movement Service on September 28, and the eventual reduction to seven days from tagging to apply for cattle passports, could we please have a guarantee from BCMS that passports will be sent out by return of post from receipt of application, instead of the 10 days it currently takes for them to come? If not, we are all going to end up with one enormous muddle.

G J Sheppard

Trerice, St Newlyn East, Newquay, Cornwall.

Revised code for sheep

Further to the article Vet visits could make assurance too costly (Opinion, May 8), and the reply from Dr Potter of the RSPCA (Letters, May 22) I would like to draw the attention of your readers to the draft recommendations for a revised sheep welfare code that have recently been issued by MAFF. Included in those is a requirement for each flock to have a written health and welfare programme to cover the yearly production cycle. This health programme must be reviewed and updated annually.

The Sheep Veterinary Society was asked by Freedom Foods to assist it in drawing up guidance notes on how such a health and welfare programme might be formulated. Our remit was to produce an outline plan of best practice for existing flocks in the Freedom Food Scheme. The recommendations submitted by SVS were considered and amended by a Freedom Foods committee, which had representatives from the industry as well as from the RSPCA.

farmers weekly concentrated on the suggestion in the Guidance Notes that a veterinary surgeon should visit the flock three times during the course of a year. Although Dr Potter indicated in his letter that this is not a mandatory requirement of the scheme, the Sheep Veterinary Society consider that this is an entirely reasonable aim for farms that belong to a voluntary welfare scheme that should be setting the "gold standard" for sheep welfare in the UK.

The SVS supports the objectives of the Freedom Foods Scheme, but recognises that it is primarily a welfare scheme for a relatively small number of producers serving a niche market.

If, as seems likely, a written health and welfare programme becomes a requirement for all sheep producers, the society will be equally happy to assist any other body which requests advice or guidance in formulating these.

C J Trower

President Sheep Veterinary Society, Moredun Research Institute, 408 Gilmerton Road, Edinburgh.

Blackmailed by the merchants?

Would David Richardson (May 29) care to name "one of Britains biggest grain merchants"? I think not. I suggest it could be a fellow member of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme steering group committee of which six members are directly connected to grain companies.

We are being blackmailed into joining this scheme by the very people who are buying our produce.

If the merchants agreed to buy assured produce only, and that includes imported grain, they would get a much more favourable response from those few that are opposed to ACCS. Then we might understand why this scheme has its advantages to the British farmer and consumer.

Come on you six, Allied, RHM, MAGM, Bibby, Group Cereals, Banks – assure us.

W P Morton,

Newnham Grange Farm, Daventry, Northants.

Anti-assurance backlash grows

I was overwhelmed by the response of farmers to my recent letter (May 8). Opposition to the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme is much wider than I had expected.

I have also been asked to extend my complaint to other assurance schemes and so am having to reconsider the position. That may be made easier now that the NFU has just announced that it is calling them all together into one group.

Robert Robertson

Chairman, agriculture & agro-foods committee, Federation of Small Business, Down Barton Farm, St Nicholas-at-Wade, Birchington, Kent.

Not product that changed

Paul Kuck (Letters, May 15) questions the need for grain assurance schemes and the consequences of them for his business. He finally asks: "What has suddenly changed with our end product that has been acceptable in the past?" The answer, probably, is that the product has not changed. But the market has.

John R Good

4 Chesterhall Steading, Longniddry, East Lothian.

All is not well down under

Rebecca Helyer gives the impression (Livestock, May 8) that all is well with care and environment with the New Zealand sheep farmers.

I wonder how she thinks the "down under" lamb can be produced at such an astonishing low prices? With thousands of ewes per man, mulesing, or stripping off the skin around the lambs back end to avoid fly attack, is regarded as essential in NZ. Such a terrifying ordeal for the lamb would certainly never be tolerated here by farmers or consumers.

R P Yeomans

Sitka Cottage, Golden Park, Hartland, North Devon.

NZ free market wont work here

I am a regular reader of your paper and I have to say there must be no chance of getting the same free market conditions that prevail in New Zealand.

If we were successful in doing so, true, there would probably be no subsidies for our farmers. But we would have rules and regulations that Westminster, not Brussels, wished to hand down to farmers.

The countryside will not be left alone by any British government. There are many people who benefit in the advisory and regulatory agencies that do not want less interference.

Also, the use of foreign labour, as requested by Mr Diepenbroek (Letters, May 22), would not be acceptable.

Cyril Fletcher

20 Woodlands Avenue, Sheffield.

Tesco move is long overdue

So Tesco plan to phase out buying from live auctions. About time too.

Fifty years ago I visited fatstock auctions with my father and uncles. Fundamentally they have changed little in the intervening years while in the high street independent butchers have all but disappeared. Supermarkets have taken over and have the whip hand.

What other industry places its wares in the high street and asks for bids on its products? All have a price tag which is more or less non-negotiable. True you can bargain a little over the price of a tractor, car or fridge. It seems only the farmer now says, "Here it is folks, now wholl give me something for it?".

Week after week we read in FW of specialist producers wishing to control their own destiny by entering into contracts before a crop is planted. What is more specialist than producing beef or sheep meat? All agricultural products are in their own individual way special.

The problem is to prevent the big buyers from dictating prices. To survive farmers must look hard at their marketing methods and, just like any other industry but against their natural instincts, join together in marketing groups and set prices that leave them with a sensible profit margin. It can be done, has been done but it needs a lot of co-operation and will power.

Roger Thomas

The Laurels, Penybont Road, Knighton, Powys.

Live auctions all right by me

With reference to your article (News, May 22) featuring David Sawday and Tescos plans to phase out live auctions, I would like to put forward an opposing view.

As small-scale producers of beef cattle and fat lambs, we have supported our local market ever since we started our business and have no intention of changing.

In our experience, we are treated as valued customers, our animals are presented correctly at auction and when the sale is complete, payment arrives within three days. Practical farmers must think long and hard before we let this service disappear.

Isnt it strange, that when a livestock market closes, a new superstore rises in its place. Perhaps that is Tescos motive for phasing out live auctions?

John Hart

Coverack, 60 Currian Road, Nanpean, St Austell, Cornwall.

Hidden agenda of Tesco?

I write following your report that the Tesco Supermarket chain has reasserted its plan to phase out the use of traditional livestock auctions for buying cattle and sheep.

I do not believe for one moment the reason for changing policy given by the company "that our customers say buying animals from livestock auctions is less welfare friendly than buying animals direct from farmers," is the real reason why Tesco is making this change.

I am sure the actual reason is based purely on economics. Once the company persuades an individual farmer to sell cattle to them direct, it will avoid paying competitive prices and auction commission. Whats more, in the long term, it will have farmers from whom it buys cattle at its mercy. After the auctioneers have gone out of business, those selling to Tesco will have no alternative market and have to take the prices offered by the supermarket chain.

Buying direct from producers, and getting into a monopoly situation with them, then holding them to ransom over the prices which are paid for their goods, has been the name of the game for large superstores for years.

If you have any doubts ask the tea blending companies with whom I work who provide packages branded with supermarket labels, whether they get a fair price for their product!

David T C Davies

Prospective Conservative Candidate Monmouth Constituency for the National Assembly for Wales, 55 Bridge Street, Usk, Monmouthshire.

Raw deal for Scots farmers

There has been a call in Scotland for farmers to pour their milk down the drain in protest against the present price situation.

Although I have sympathy with this suggestion and completely share the frustration, I do feel drastic action would work only for a short time and probably leave us worse off in the long term. The dairy trade would source more of its milk from Europe so that it could never be held to ransom again.

There is a positive solution staring us in the face, and now is the time to act. First, let us identify the hows and whys of the current low milk price.

After deregulation, processors believed that there would not be enough milk, and overbid to make sure they had their supply. They formed direct-supply contracts with producers to give them a percentage guaranteed milk supply (at a price).

Milk Marque selling rounds are dictated by the Office of Fair Tradings 90% sale rule. Now, because of the percentage of direct supply, the dairy trade need never bid for 90% as they do not need the extra milk, especially now that we have a strong £ which lets in cheaper imports. They have cracked the system and we are left with a price dictated largely by the intervention milk price equivalent.

That is further compounded by the fact that during the comfortable statutory board years, the trade operated on a cost plus system and the joint committee to fix prices. That lead most processors to become inefficient as there was not the same drive or competition.

So what is the solution? The solution is for Scottish Milk and Milk Marque to join together and build three big driers. One in Scotland and two in England, capable of handling 2m litres of milk each/per day. The products of these drying plants for butter and skimmed milk power would be sold on the world market at world prices so as not to distort our customer processors home market.

These driers need work only when there are surpluses in the system; possibly for 4-5 months/year. Taking the cost of £10m each, spread over every UK diary farmer, it works out at 0.3p/litre. Spread that cost over five years and it comes to not a lot.

All we are doing is using up surplus milk that the trade is unable to use and, as a result, has brought the price down. Producers, the ball is in our court.

Nobody else will help us but ourselves. It is essential that we motivate ourselves and instruct our two milk co-ops to start building immediately. The government has a single goal of reducing consumer prices and dont care if 30% of Britains farmers go to the wall. Im afraid that the NFUs call for the big discrepancy between the price a consumer pays and what we are paid, will result in the retail margin being cut and more pressure on us to accept less.

I have stood up and asked for money before. As a result we have the highly successful Caledonian Creamery Co which uses 150m litres per year. The time has come again and we must all act for our own preservation.

R Ian R Evans

Penkiln, Garlieston, Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire.

Hostility to us is nothing new

Oliver Walston (Talking Point, May15) is in error together with many others if he thinks that the venomous hostility worked up against British agriculture is anything new.

He should read a little history, particularly that of the "loaf election" of 1906. The programme of the conservative Unionist Party included tariff reform, by extending the small import tariff then in force and used to pay for the South African war, to a general system designed to correct the situation Britain found itself in at the time in which the country was a Free Trade island surrounded by protectionist powers like America, France, and Germany. This was leading to the gradual destruction of industry as well as agriculture.

The result of the election was a disaster for the Unionists. The Liberal Party programme was a very simple one, "Hands off the Peoples food". They were wont to compare a plump Free trade loaf with a protectionist loaf, a measly thing of the sort that foreigners had to eat.

The long term results were catastrophic for Britain. She ended up in hock to America after buying munitions she could no longer make herself. France could not afford to re-arm properly, so the country fell in four days, and we had no money to continue the war realistically, but were saved by Hitlers folly.

Can the advocates of Free Trade produce a single instance where free trade actually enriched a whole country apart from a small clique of financiers and traders?

G G A Crisp,

Le Mesnil de Benneville, Cahagnes, 14240, France.

AAG will only widen gulf

The ever-widening gulf between Jack Cunningham and the farming community can only be exacerbated by his own Agricultural Advisory Group, which can be found on MAFFs internet web page.

There is not one full-time farmer or landowner among his team. It consists of academics, economists, consumers, greens and the chief executive of the RSPB. I doubt if between them they would be capable of understanding the IACS form, let alone interpret any aspect of the present market for combinable crops or livestock.

It is not just a disgraceful situation that Dr Cunningham refuses to listen to or consult with the agricultural community, it is an intended insult from an arrogant minister representing an out-of-touch government.

John Robins

Manor Farm, Longbridge Deverill, Warminster, Wilts.

P&O policy not to ship sheep

The article "Review live export ban" (News, May 15) reported Kent-based sheep producer, Mr Homewood, as saying at the P&O annual general meeting that we should review our policy on transporting British sheep from Dover to Calais, particularly since we are carrying them from Ireland.

As our chairman, Lord Sterling, explained to Mr Homewood at the AGM, our general policy remains one of not carrying live animals for slaughter to the Continent. This policy has been in place since 1994 and arises from our concern over the standards of monitoring and enforcement of animal transport regulations in several European countries and the effect on our business of public reaction to the trade.

When we introduced this policy we said that we would be prepared to review it if there were a significant change in the position.

Towards the end of 1996, the Irish government introduced extensive new regulations. We, therefore, agreed, for a trial period only, to carry live animals on our Rosslare to Cherbourg service. In practice, however, we found that once the animals reached the Continent then the necessary standards could not be guaranteed. Consequently, we decided to end the trial. Irish exporters have since taken legal action against us. Pending a full trial we are required by the Irish court to continue the service. I must emphasise, however, that this is contrary to our general policy.

P J Smith

Director of Corporate Affairs, The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, 79 Pall Mall, London.

Electricity book can save lives

Your tragic story about a Norfolk farmers fatal error resulting in electrocution (News, May 22) has prompted me to write.

The driver had clearly not been aware of the advice the electricity industry gives on avoiding such accidents nor of the actions to be taken after contact with power lines. This is set out in the FarmElectric Safety Handbook.

HSE statistics reported a rise in farm accidents last year.

In reply to industry demand, the Farm Energy Centre has rewritten and updated its safety handbook which will be launched at this years Royal Show. It is our sincere hope that the handbook enables farmers and growers to be fully aware of the implications of using machinery near overhead cables. Farmer readers who do not have the safety handbook, should apply to their local electricity company for a copy.

Roy Woodford

Farm Energy Centre, NAC, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire.

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