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Programme highlights Friday, 2 March, 2001, 16:36 GMT
Supermarkets "too powerful"
Supermarkets insist customers want cheap food
Supermarkets insist customers want cheap food
New regulations will be finalised later today, allowing the movement of some livestock to abattoirs.

Licences will only be available in areas free from foot-and-mouth.

Each consignment will need a special licence; farmers will have to certify that the animals are healthy; the animals will have to travel in specially disinfected trucks; and they will not be allowed into the food-chain until they've been inspected by a vet.

The Chief Veterinary Officer, Jim Scudamore, also said that there were seven new confirmed outbreaks. The total has reached 39.

Mr Scudamore said that 37,000 animals were now due to be destroyed, and a further 67,000 were still being traced.

In an armlock

The foot and mouth crisis has also begun to cause some wider political recriminations.

Foot-and-mouth has prompted questions about modern farming practice
Foot-and-mouth has prompted questions about modern farming practice

The Prime Minister last night chose to lay part of the blame for animal diseases at the doors of the major supermarkets.

Speaking to farmers in Gloucester, Mr Blair claimed that the retail food industry had farmers "in an armlock" - forcing them to provide produce at unrealistically low prices.

He drew attention in particular to the widespread closure of abattoirs over several years, partly because supermarkets insisted on getting all their meat from a single source.

Crusade for reform

Mr Blair also made some more general comments about the need for a radical review of the long-term future for British agriculture.

What price fresh farm produce?
What price fresh farm produce?

This followed remarks by Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, who told the World at One yesterday that the foot-and-mouth disease might well hasten the reform-process.

And a few hours later, the junior agriculture minister, Elliot Morley made his own pointed contribution to this new crusade for reform of the food industry.

He spoke last night of the need to end subsidy and over-production. The post-war policy of cheaper food - based on intensive production methods, destruction of wildlife features, and ever larger agricultural units - should now be reviewed.

Scrabbling for a scapegoat

"There is a new role for quality as well as quantity," he said.

Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: "Farmers in an armlock"

Does this add up to a concerted effort to encourage radical thinking. And what might such ideas mean in practice?

Tony Blair's attack on the supermarkets certainly had a very frosty reception.

Asda complained bitterly: if Mr Blair wanted to play politics and scrabble around for a scapegoat, then that was up to him.

Unhelpful intervention

One of the points that upsets supermarkets is that they have only just emerged from a lengthy Competition Commission investigation which cleared them of price-fixing.

Consumer choice: cost-cutting or quality?
Consumer choice: cost-cutting or quality?

One consequence was a plan to work out a code of practice to govern the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers.

Safeway told the programme that the Prime Minister's intervention, in the middle of that process, was unhelpful.

The firm's director of Communications, Kevin Hawkins, added that it was inappropriate for Mr Blair to make such emotive comments in the midst of a farming crisis.

Public will pay more

Others, however, are delighted that Tony Blair seems prepared to challenge the way the food-industry does its business.

Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association, claims the Prime Minister's intervention will open up a debate on the price the public is willing to pay for its food.

"If we want fundamental changes of farming practice, we're going to have to expect to pay more in future," he said.

Food for thought for the nation's shoppers
Food for thought for the nation's shoppers

"We have to get away from the mantra that the public wants cheap food. As long as we're saying that to supermarkets, they will drive down the costs of production.

"We all know the consequences of that."

Too easy to blame everyone else

Wouldn't more radical change mean a whole new basket of regulations - at the very moment when the Government is desperate to REDUCE red-tape?

Lord Haskins heads the better regulation taskforce - working to cut bureaucracy - but he's also the Chairman of Northern Foods, an important player in the food industry.

Lord Haskins:
Lord Haskins: "It's too easy to blame everyone else"

He believes people would not be willing to pay more for their food and that increased regulation of supermarkets would be unwelcome.

"I don't see that there is a general problem with supermarkets as such... but I'm very keen that we look at all these issues - intensive farming and supermarket food supply - on an evidence-based basis.

"I don't want us to jump to a quick conclusion about what might happen. In an emotional situation like this, it's too easy for people to blame everyone else for the problem," he warned.

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"Emotive terminology isn't helpful"
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"Too easy to point the finger of blame"
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