Defra lets down British farmers as it buys food from overseas

MP Jim Paice
MP Jim Paice
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THE Government department in charge of promoting UK food is buying two thirds of its own food from overseas.

Ministers were accused of breaking a promise to support British farmers after it emerged only 30 per cent of the food bought by the catering service of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over the past six months was sourced from Britain.

And another Whitehall department has admitted that only 11 per cent of the £3m of food it bought last year was produced in this country.

The figures raise questions over the Government’s pledge to support British farmers despite introducing a new code for Whitehall – Government Buying Standards – earlier this year which calls for departments to buy food produced to UK production standards.

Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “Some of these figures are extremely disappointing, especially at a time when Defra Ministers are pledging their support for British farmers.

“On such an important issue, we would have expected to see a more joined-up approach from Government.”

A series of Freedom of Information requests by the Yorkshire Post has revealed dramatic differences across Whitehall in support for British farmers.

Between May and November, only 30 per cent of food purchased by Defra’s privately-run catering service was sourced from the UK, although the department said all of its fresh beef, fresh pork joints, fresh milk and shell eggs are British. All potatoes and root vegetables are also sourced from the UK when in season.

The overall figure is embarrassing for Defra only months after Farming Minister Jim Paice slammed the department after it emerged only three per cent of food met higher environmental standards such as being organic – well below a target of 10 per cent.

Lee Woodger, head of food chain at the National Farmers Union, questioned why the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) could source 85 per cent of its food in the UK while Defra manages only 30 per cent.

He said: “It’s disappointing that the department responsible for promoting the UK food industry isn’t achieving as much as other departments are – it’s not leading the way as you would expect it to.”

Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, said: “This league table shows the extent of the Tory-led Government’s broken promise to support British farmers. The public sector purchases £2bn of food a year, yet some departments bought just 11 per cent from British producers. Defra Ministers, who are responsible for enforcing the ‘Buy British’ code across Government, sourced less than one third of their food to this standard.”

Our survey found that only 11 per cent of food bought by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2010/11 was from the UK, although that has improved to 24 per cent so far in 2011/12.

Only 29 per cent of food bought by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so far this year was British, although all of it met UK production standards, and the Department of Health has managed to buy only 24 per cent of its food in this country.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is Whitehall’s best performer, buying 85 per cent of its food from this country in each of the last three years.

In September, the Government published new Buying Standards for Whitehall departments which demand food be produced to UK welfare standards which are often higher than those overseas but the measures do not apply to schools, hospitals and other arms of the public sector and allow foreign food to be bought if it is cheaper.

Ministers are barred by European Union rules from imposing a simple “buy British” edict.

A Defra spokesperson said: ““We can’t insist that our caterers only use British produce because it would be illegal under EU trade rules, and in any case not all foods are grown in the UK.

“But wherever possible we want to see food that adheres to high welfare standards.”

The public sector buys about £2bn-worth of food per year.