Trade Talk

Related tags Food standards agency Defra

Trade Talk
A problem shared is not always a problem halved

The government's Christmas present to the English livestock industry, still reeling from the effects of foot and mouth disease (FMD), is a proposal that it should share the costs of animal health and welfare.

Whether the devolved administrations will follow suit remains to be revealed. On the face of it, this seems like an elegant way of meeting part of the government target to cut the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (DEFRA's) costs. Everyone involved was aware of lack of resources at DEFRA during the FMD crisis. But is it fair that the shortfall should be borne by the farmers rather than making a case to the Treasury to relax some of the cost cuts awarded to DEFRA? Naturally the National Farmers' Union is against the move. But as it has always opposed cost or subsidy cuts there is a danger that it has cried wolf too often.

It isn't clear how much each farmer would have to pay. This could make a difference to how they view the proposal and whether they think they can continue in business. Civil Service cuts in spending and staff are always popular with voters on principle. But the public can never have sufficient information to predict the knock-on effects on its own interests until it's too late to do anything about it.

Although there is scope for improving efficiency in the Civil Service in general, seemingly indiscriminate shifting of costs to other parts of the community could be a false economy.

This proposal should be of real concern to the customers who depend upon the fruits of the English farmers' labours for a ready supply of sustainable milk and meat and their products.

How the tables have turned. Until recently the farmers received subsidies from the government in proportion to their production. Now they're being asked to finance the government. Those who felt unable to cope without subsidies could be ill-equipped to weather this call.

The consumer will probably have to pay in the end unless further efficiencies can be made in the rest of the supply chain from food processor to fork. The food manufacturing industry fought off the original proposals that it should share the costs of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). But this looks more like a fait-accompli asking for views on not whether, but when and how it will be implemented.

Meanwhile, the FSA has asked the meat industry to pay more for increased inspections without, it is claimed, proposals from the Meat Hygiene Service for cost savings on its part.

All will be revealed in 2008.

Clare Cheney​ is director general at the Provision Trade Federation

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