23 October 1998


Tell truth about beef imports?

Unless Mr Blair and his urban cohorts extend or revamp the calf slaughter payment scheme, traceability in British beef (Stock & Sales Update, Oct 2) will mean a short trip from the calving box to a hole in the ground.

Perhaps that is the ultimate farm assurance scheme the overfed British public has been waiting for? Then, with the usual enthusiastic encouragement of MAFF (Ministry Against Farmers and Farming), British consumers can enjoy all the delights of cheap imported beef. That is beef produced on desecrated rainforest land or in overcrowded and unhealthy beef-lots with the aid of growth-promoting antibiotics, sex hormones, chemical sedatives and genetically modified feed, or from countries where foot-and-mouth disease, rabies, rinderpest, bovine tuberculosis and anthrax are both endemic and rife. It is all right provided the beef is cheap.

Lets see full traceability at the supermarkets by making it a trading standards requirement to clearly and accurately label country of origin on all imported retail food. That will release farm assurance scheme verifiers to buy plane tickets (possibly one-way) to the USA, Latin America and Africa and to report back with their horror stories currently withheld from our buying public. Then, with full knowledge of the alternatives, they can start finding jobs promoting British food without being a pain in the neck to our farmers.

Stuart Pattison

Church Lane, Calstock, Cornwall.

Processors and stores conspire

In Mr Blairs conference speech the other week, he stated that support for agriculture costs £50/head for every man, woman and child in the British Isles. Thats a vast amount of money to be paid to one industry.

What Mr Blair does not state, however, is the fact that this money is "looted" from farmers. This is a conspiracy between food processors and retailers in order to depress agricultural prices mainly by low auction prices, from which producers clubs then set the prices paid to their members.

In conclusion, if our revered green and pleasant land is to be sustained for future generations, there must be a major change in marketing to redress the balance between primary producer and retailer.

David Chadwick

Higher Townhouse Farm, Southfield, Burnley.

Supermarkets must be curbed

It is deeply encouraging that independent specialists have

at last told the Office of Fair Trading that multiple retailers have misled consumers into thinking they buy their food at bargain prices.

However the full calumny of the supermarkets will never be properly exposed until the OFT extends its terms of reference and instead of focusing almost exclusively on the interaction between retailer and consumer turns instead to the pressure being put on the producer and the processor.

Evidence suggests that predatory pricing at both farm and abattoir/dairy/packer level has forced their suppliers to provide goods and services for derisory margins (and on occasions for less than the cost of production). Yet they have made sure they continue to enjoy regular net margins of 6-8%.

The OFT must extend its inquiry so that it can fully appreciate the long term damage being done to agricultural supply chain structures by ingrained

procurement policies that make sure that whatever else happens the multiples margins are always protected.

In basic terms, the supermarkets have developed a system in which no matter how small the overall income cake generated by fresh food products becomes, they still take the same sized slice. Those further down the chain are left to fight among themselves for the crumbs.

The French government has countered this rapaciousness by insisting that supermarket food sector margins cannot be more than 3% and the US government has long since passed regulations forbidding products to be sold for less than the cost of production.

There are many who hope that a properly positioned OFT enquiry would confirm the need for the UK government to pass similar laws.

Robert Forster

Chief executive, National Beef

Silly mark-up at Waitrose…

At a time when the British public is being fleeced when buying new cars, is it aware that it is also being fleeced when buying potatoes in Waitrose stores in Petersfield, Chichester and Cowplain and Sainsburys store in Portsmouth?

According to FW (Markets, Oct 9) ex-farm potatoes were £114.30/t. Yet on Sat, Oct 10, loose, washed Estima potatoes were, in the above-mentioned stores, 42p/lb (924p/kg). That works out at £924/t. How can the supermarkets justify that level of markup? Or is it a case of if youre daft enough to pay it were happy to take your money?

Robin E Truscott

Advertising not in MDCs remit

I refer to the letter (Oct 9)from A Charman, "TV adverts can boost milk price".

The letter states that the Milk Development Council keeps putting forward views on producing more milk. This is in fact not the case. MDC concentrates farmer funds on enhancing the technical strength and advancing the competitive position of Great Britains dairy farmers. We do this by funding research, which will help dairy producers to cut costs.

The writer asks why the MDC does not spend more time and money advertising milk. As we have pointed out on many occasions, advertising is outside of our remit. In fact, we are actually prohibited from doing any form of advertising.

We have recently funded, jointly with the NFU, a report looking at the merits of generic advertising, which is now out for consultation. Until this has been completed and a recommendation put to government by the farming unions there can be no change in our remit.

The third point related to some £1m which MDC was quoted as receiving earlier this year. MDC have not received any such money. I assume that the writer is referring to money received by the National Dairy Council, which I believe, is being used to advertise in womens magazines.

Kim S Brake

Communications Manager, Milk Development Council, 5-7 John Princes Street, London.

A fair portrayal wanted, please

In childrens books the farmer is portrayed as a friendly, caring and kind person – looking after both the countryside and animals.

In the adult world the farmer is shown in two very different ways as a smock-wearing, straw chewing, ignorant yokel or a money-grabbing, countryside-destroying, animal-hating, Range Rover-driving, plum-in-mouth hooray henry.

Could we please redress the balance? This is after all the age of virtual reality. We need to educate the masses.

T E Robinson

Manor Farm Cottage, Crimplesham, Kings Lynn, Norfolk.

Wayleaves are far too low

I am writing to endorse E. Evanss letter (Oct 2) regarding the ridiculously low wayleaves which are paid, in our case by the National Grid. We have just received an annual wayleave of £39.70 for each high voltage line grid tower on our land.

By contrast, we pay £68 a year as a standing charge for our 1m line supplying electricity to the farm.

Farmers and land owners seem to have got it wrong somewhere. But then we are not monopolies with compulsory powers.

Brian Batty

Holme Farm, Caunton, Newark, Nottinghamshire

Shotgun owners come under fire

I have read your article "Gun controls urged for suicide-risk farmers" (News, Oct 2).

With the greatest respect to Keith Hawton, apart from probably being part of the governments hidden agenda to attack field sports and those in possession (quite legally) of shotguns, his suicide statement is sick.

Do we seriously have to pay an Oxford University professor out of public funds to tell us that half the farming community who committed suicide had shot themselves?

Do we seriously have to pay an Oxford University professor to go on the BBCs Farming Today programme at 5.45am, when most people are at their lowest ebb at any rate, to suggest other ways of committing suicide and to go into explicit detail about the methods some people employ?

If a farmer is going to commit suicide then he is going to find a way and no Oxford University professor is going to stop him. This is an explicit attack on those who own shotguns and all this professor is doing is stirring the pot so that more of our proofing houses and those fantastic craftsmen in the gun trade are put out of business. Come and live in the real world where it actually happens, Mr Hawton.

Michael J &#42 Ford

Landowning Initiatives, Lower Moorhayne Farm, Yarcombe, Nr Honiton, Devon.

NZ bureaucracy on higher level

For a moment, I felt I was going to agree with the letter (Sept 18) from S R Lovett of New Zealand. That was until that familiar note of NZ smugness crept in.

The writer is correct in pointing out that NZ has crippling tax rates along with difficult, pedantic regulations, applied by bureaucrats who have followed our example but then honed it to a higher level of obstruction.

The Departments of Conservation and of Labour still conspire to try to defeat the local family-run business where we worked a few years ago in South Canterbury. But hygiene and animal welfare regulations cannot be compared with the UK.

Before we gave up our milking herd here, we did not have just one dairy inspection. There was a weekly inspection by milk sample with all the same liability for contamination. There were county council inspections for hygiene, the district council for water quality, Environment Agency for discharge, and MAFF inspections. Now we have cattle tracing too, not to mention continuous surveillance from the many non-farming neighbours.

NZ farmers are humane people but when it comes to commercial animal welfare, the systems divide further. Long-haul live exports, easycare or under-staffed herd/flock management, mulesing, live velvet harvesting and home slaughter are just some of the practices which would not be acceptable here.

I do not remember a spade as being part of the NZ lambing kit. Corpses were stacked, in the open, by the roadside for weekly collection by tanners. No thank you, we do not want to farm the New Zealand way.

When it comes to economic reform, does your correspondent no longer notice the countless empty farm houses of South Canterbury and remember all the families driven from the industry?

Maybe his island with less than a 1m residents allows their farmers to live in the real world as they see it. We have to operate in a world as almost 60m non-farmers, with widespread access, see it.

Jonathan Batchelor

Glebe Farm, Greatham, Pulborough, West Sussex.

Ukrainian pork is delicious

I strongly support Jack Howletts letter (Oct 9) referring to consumers reluctance to buy British pork.

I recently completed a two-year assignment in the Ukraine working on an agriculture-related project. I regularly went to the meat market (which would have given the average UK meat hygiene inspector a heart attack) and spent an instructive half-hour talking about which particular cut of pork to buy.

Being a foreigner, the price was always higher than for Ukainians but it was worth every penny. Fried, grilled or stewed, I tasted pork as I remember it in my youth. Particularly noticeable was the higher fat content, often pointed out as a selling plus to me by the farmers wives who said it made the meat tender, moist and tasty.

Returning home after two years, the contrast between Ukrainian pork and that from my local supermarket was dramatic. The latter was tasteless and had the consistency of damp cardboard. To make an attractive meal required a degree of marinading and seasoning which almost completely obscured what little flavour the meat possessed. Its beef and chicken for me from now on.

Jack Howlett points out that the breeding companies which dominanted the supply of pigs in the UK have gone for leaner pigs which cost less to produce. He is right but why has this happened? First, fat is the enemy in our image-dominated society.

Second, and more importantly, look at pig prices.

In the past 20 years, first-hand prices of pigs, excluding the effect of inflation, have continued to fall; a fact that the Office of Fair Trading will, no doubt, note in its forthcoming report on supermarket pricing.

As the OFT will also note, the gap between farm and retail pork prices has also widened significantly during the past 10 years. Confronted with those commercial ressures, UK pig producers have little choice but to agitate for breeds that can go to market as quickly as possible at as cheap a feed cost as possible even if, in the long term, they are destroying their market.

In answer to the organic farming lobby, organic pork in this country tastes no better. In fact, Ukrainian pigs have to eat a considerable volume of what we used to call pig swill, banned in this country – and seem to do very well on it.

Roger Dean

5 Drummer Lodge, Kinlock Street, London.

Grossly unfair to hill farmers

Although I have never been involved with farming in the marginal areas, many of my friends are. How appalled they must have been to read David Hardens comments at the BVA Congress (News, Oct 2).

Mr Harden said that given the subsidy system these farmers are receiving a very handsome return from running large numbers of sheep on the hills.

He also said that the hill suckler cow and the hill ewe had little to do with the food production chain. What rubbish. He questioned what hill farmers did all week. Does he not realise they produce the sucklers and breeding ewes that the lowland beef and sheep producers rely on?

He predicts that the future for these farmers will be to look after the landscape. What does he think they have been doing for centuries?

Let us hope that whatever support system is put in place, it will allow enough hill farmers to survive to carry on keeping the hill communities alive. Otherwise they will be turned into great tracts of a de-populated, stockless wildernesses.

Ian Howie

Ryefield, Wormbridge, Hereford.

MDC did not fund my study

Malcolm Pearce made a number of very disparaging remarks about my research, myself and, by implication, my university, in his letter "Nothing new in research results" (Sept 11).

He referred to an article in the Daily Mail about some of my research on the skills of stockmanship and the importance of interacting and talking to cows. I would make the following points: The research referred to in the article and in his letter, was not funded by the Milk Development Council.

The MDC money was awarded for an imaginative research project examining the issues considered by stockpersons to be important in their work and to gain an insight into ideas for innovations which would improve work efficiency, output and quality.

That report had only just been received by the MDC and so I was not in a position to talk to the Press about it. Instead, rather than say nothing to the journalist from the Daily Mail, I talked at length about the complex area of my research, a small part of which was reported. However, I saw it as a good opportunity for a positive news story about food production.

From that piece in the article I have had a number of opportunities on a range of radio and TV programmes to talk about the quality of milk, the high standards on British farms and the dedication and skill of farmers.

The research findings about positive interaction with animals would, I hope, not be new to farmers, but the main readership of the Daily Mail is not farmers.

I can assure FW readers that I am as aware as anybody about the hardships facing farmers. But it is a good motto when things are difficult to ensure that you fire at the enemy and not your allies.

Dr Martin Seabrook

University of Nottingham, Rural Business Research Unit, Loughborough, Leics.

Soft touch in Ulster loos

When I recently attended the debate on the pig farming crisis at the new Northern Ireland Assembly, I was delighted to find that parity of esteem was evident. The same soft toilet-paper is used in both the members and the public loos. Now thats real democracy and equality in action.

Thomas Downey

Bessbrook, Newry.

See more