SUPERMARKETS must stop scouring the world for the cheapest food they can find and support the British products consumers want, farming leaders urged today amid the horse meat scandal.
Speaking at the annual National Farmers’ Union conference, president Peter Kendall said there had been “real shock” that consumers had been deceived over what they buy, when it emerged burgers and other meat products had been contaminated with horse meat.
He said supermarkets had put damaging pressure on processors to force down the price of food, but those processors were ultimately responsible for the “fraud” against consumers, because “they should have told the retailers to get stuffed, that you can’t do eight burgers for a pound”.
He called on retailers to source high quality, traceable products from farmers in the UK, and for an end to marketing campaigns which dressed up foreign imports in a “homely British-sounding name” to fool consumers.
Mr Kendall criticised Morrisons for their “Hemsley” range, which he said sounded like a traditional market town in Yorkshire but used poultry imported from abroad and produced to less exacting welfare standards than the supermarket demands of British suppliers.
His comments came as Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke vowed to bring meat production “closer to home” and work more closely with British farmers as part of a raft of changes in response to the scandal.
Tesco has introduced a new testing process so customers can be sure that what is on the label is in the product, he said, and from July all chicken meats sold at Tesco’s UK stores will come from British farms.
Mr Kendall said: “If there’s one single message that’s come from the horse meat scandal, it’s that our consumers want to know their food is coming from as close as home as possible.”
Speaking at the conference in Birmingham, he said that within eight years, there would be another four and a half million people in the UK, “more than four Birmingham’s worth of extra mouths to feed”, and if everyone were to have the opportunity to buy British, the supply chain had to start getting things right today.
“We now need supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products they can find and start sourcing high quality, traceable product from farmers here at home.”
Before the conference started he told journalists: “There’s been a real shock that people have been deceived about what they buy.”
He said the public was facing financial pressures, so price was important, but the long, convoluted journey their food made around the world had shocked people.
“It’s not as if it’s nuts and bolts, pots and pans or mobile phones - this is our food,” he said.
He added: “I’m convinced that putting price pressure on processors is damaging, but that’s no excuse for fraud.
“People who have engaged in this fraud are ultimately responsible, they should have told the retailers to get stuffed, that you can’t do eight burgers for a pound.”
Mr Kendall criticised the Government for its lack of support for British farmers in reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which governs farming subsidies across the European Union.
But he welcomed Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s ongoing support for a badger cull to tackle tuberculosis in cattle, and to ensure that the pilot culls go ahead this year and that a full roll-out of the programme happens next year.
He also said the farming industry desperately need a stable year in terms of the weather, a vaccine for the livestock disease Schmallenberg, and a “science-led” approach on pesticides which have been linked with declines in bees, and for retailers to work with farmers to shorten the food supply chain and make it fair for all.
Mr Paterson told the conference that consumers needed to have confidence in the food industry and what was on their plates.
“It is totally unacceptable that anyone should buy something labelled beef and end up with horsemeat. That is fraud. I am determined that this criminal activity should be stopped and that anyone who has defrauded the customer must feel the full force of the law,” he said.
He said that out of 3,654 tests carried out in the UK, only 35 have tested positive for horsemeat, a rate of less than 1%.
He also said that the UK was importing a huge amount of food that could be produced domestically, including thousands of tonnes of cheddar cheese, as well as dairy, fruit and vegetables.
“We need to show consumers how great UK products are and encourage them to get behind the great British farmer, something I know the NFU is already doing through its ‘Buy British’ campaign,” he told the farming conference.