Who will bear the cost of fight against food fraud?

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

As autumn progresses and the days shorten noticeably, the good weather continues. Arable farmers are busy planting next year’s crops and look back on a very good year indeed. Production across the globe has been good, which is precisely why we now face falling prices as markets react to plentiful supply.

Things can change very quickly of course, and we have seen how the Russian ban on imports has added extra pressure to dairy markets across Europe. But it does not stop there. As some British and European dairy products look to world markets as a solution to the Russian problem, my friends in Australia who are also banned from the Russian market, can see their milk price potentially affected by this.

New Zealand is not affected by the Russian ban, and it is likely that if they move to supply in any quantity, it could provide an opportunity for others. Whichever way we look at it, and there is little comfort in the fact that Russian food is becoming extremely expensive following the ban on EU and USA products, which are the two biggest agricultural exporters; the Russian ban has added to our difficulties in the sector at a time of falling prices and the European Commission has been persuaded to open Private Storage Aid for butter, skimmed milk powder and certain cheeses which will help. The Commission has also agreed to extend the intervention period until the end of the year. We shouldn’t forget that other sectors are also badly affected by the Russian trade ban, and European fruit and vegetables were the first to be hit and red meat is also badly affected.

There has been a great deal of coverage in the media of late concerning dairy not only due to milk prices but due to the badger cull starting again in Somerset and Gloucestershire, also the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers’ (RABDF) recent statement that British dairying is heavily dependent on workers from central and eastern Europe. A recent survey which covered 250 dairy farms in the UK showed that 40% of them had struggled to recruit new workers in the last five years. The RABDF would like to expand the survey to 2500 dairy farms to see if the answer is similar.

Half the migrant workers on British dairy farms are from Poland, with Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and New Zealand important sources, but some way behind. Whilst politicians score points against each other on immigration, the fact is that finding British dairy workers and managers is extremely difficult, if not impossible in some areas. There are dairy farmers in Sussex looking for staff and good herdsman have plenty of choice if they are looking for a position. Many of the larger dairy farms have teams of mainly migrant workers, without which they would find it very difficult to operate.

Last week’s column discussed the government’s proposed action over the risk of contaminated food and food fraud in general, and how it might be tackled in order to ensure it could not happen again. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for getting this done and setting up a body which would protect the general public from fraud and criminality in the food chain. There now seems to be a danger that the cost will be borne by the food chain, as government is not only reluctant to introduce more red tape, but is certainly not willing to fund such a scheme.

There are one or two interesting principles here, the first of which is this; whose job is it to protect the public, and in doing so should it be referred to as additional red tape? Whilst I can see that asking those who created the problem to pay sounds all well and good, unfortunately as they are in a position to pass that cost straight down to their suppliers, all suppliers will pay the cost. Whilst that is bad enough given that most suppliers are totally innocent and are very likely to be in a different category where no problems have arisen, British suppliers will also be included in this without doubt.

Whilst we all regard the action proposed by government as necessary, especially as well over a year after the last crisis where horsemeat was found in the food chain, we have no real clarity over how it got there or who was responsible. What we do know is that there was no such problem with British food supplied under the ‘Red Tractor’ farm assurance scheme, and whilst a body which will police and prosecute any future misdemeanours is welcome, I fail to see why British farmers should pay towards it. Short food chains and buying food produced in this country is surely where we should start, and government itself could set an example by buying ‘Red Tractor’ food for schools, prisons, hospitals and the army.

I write about British farmers and British food as it is second nature to do so, but all that could change tomorrow! We certainly do not know for sure what we will find in the aftermath of Scotland’s vote for independence, but one thing is already certain and that is that things will not be the same, whichever way they vote in Scotland. Whilst politicians from Westminster have descended on Scotland in their droves, promising and persuading voters, farmers are also in both camps with a fair number uncertain of which way to vote.

The European Union has a massive role in agriculture and there has been a great deal of debate over how that would change and whether farmers in Scotland would be better or worse off as an independent state within Europe or not; assuming that membership is granted of course. Much of Scotland’s agricultural output is traded over the border and some are worried about the continuation of that trade. Questions have been asked about the ‘British Lion’ by large egg producers in Scotland and so on. It is complex and difficult and it will take a great deal of time and effort to sort all these things should they vote ‘yes’.

It has kept the British media excited and full of vim, as things develop hour by hour. Whichever way the vote goes, they are going to have a field day over the coming months.