Securing our supplies

By Hayley Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Jim paice, Food manufacturers, Food

Securing our supplies
Shadow secretary of state for agriculture and rural affairs, Jim Paice, talks to Hayley Brown about the major issues faced by food manufacturers

Family photo frames and sentimental pictures of loved ones are not so visible in Jim Paice's office at Portcullis House, Westminster; unlike the laminated posters of his cows. And just like a proud father, the first thing he says on entering his room is: "Have you seen my Highland cattle?"

They look well fed, well groomed, and he's only too happy to talk about them. It's not impossible to predict how he's going to answer certain questions. And true to form, he starts: "The amount of dairy farmers leaving the industry is horrendous."

The difficulty with Paice is steering him to talk about the issues faced by food manufacturers, as he is firmly on the agricultural side of the fence, having worked in or around farms most of his life. But he insists that the main threat to food manufacturers in the UK is ingredient supply and security.

The UK has lost around half a million dairy cows in the last 10 years, he says. "We're going in the wrong direction. And as a result, there will most certainly be shortages of milk supply to food manufacturers in the future, unless they can source abroad. At the moment it appears that they are only seeing seasonal troughs, but it's only a matter of time before it's an all year round problem."

Shortages will potentially "drive up costs for manufacturers" and, more importantly, undermine the security of ingredient supply within the UK.

Sourcing abroad, even as a very last resort, will come with it's fair share of difficulties, he ominously predicts. "With the global population expected to grow nearly 50% to 9bn by 2050, the competition for raw materials will really heat up. China and India are growing with prosperity and are therefore wanting more - and better quality - food. They can afford more protein, and these countries will need more grain for animal feed - putting more pressure on world supply," Paice explains.

"Britain should be manufacturing and growing a large proportion of its indigenous foods. The more production declines, the more at risk we are of having an insufficient food supply."

And then it's only a matter of time before he's accusing the Labour government of not doing anything to avert the impending crisis.

The regulatory burden

According to Paice the best way to secure the future of ingredient supply in the UK is for government to relieve manufacturers and growers of the "never-ending" regulatory burden. Frustratingly, he doesn't give away any exact details on policies or on how the Tories plan to reverse this trend. But he stresses that the party is keeping certain regulations "under review"

He gives the example of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which grants seasonal work permits to non-EU citizens to help British growers during harvest.

In 2004, the government reduced the quota from 25,000 to 16,250 and workers from new EU accession countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, filled the labour gap. This year, the SAWS quota was only available to workers from Bulgaria and Romania.

"The National Farmer's Union have estimated that around £40M worth of crops were left rotting in the fields this year due to insufficient labour. It's unfathomable, but people in this country simply just don't want to do this kind of work. It's yet another piece of contentious legislation, which is detrimental to the UK's food supply," says Paice.

The issue of pesticides, is also particularly "frightening". "Up to 85% of agricultural pesticides could be banned and growing produce such as salads and potatoes will become impossible. Farmers may as well pack up and go home if that's the case. To be fair, the British government do oppose this legislation, but I'm not convinced that they're doing enough to ensure that it won't go ahead."

According to Paice, food manufacturers will have to import a vast amount of ingredients and raw materials from overseas: "and when I say overseas that means countries from outside the EU"

Another way that the Tories will address the issue of ingredient supply in the UK, he continues, will be to tackle the problem of labelling.

For example, a meat, cheese, butter or milk product may claim to be 'British', when in fact all that has happened is that it has been smoked, sliced, bottled or packed in the UK, but the livestock reared elsewhere: "With food labelling in particular, the current government is failing to counter deceit."

Paice is therefore committed to country of origin labelling. In ready meals, however, this type of labelling is a little more difficult because they contain many components. And depending on the transparency of the supply chain, manufacturers may not know where all the individual ingredients are from.

But Paice suggests that if a certain percentage of ingredients are grown or reared in Britain, for example, then manufacturers should be able to claim that the product is 'British'.

Paice firmly believes that manufacturers need to push 'best of British' as a marketing tool. But measures need to be in place to assure consumers that what they are eating is the same as what they think they are eating.

"This should also be the same for local foods. Because even if a product has local ingredients, these may have been sent halfway across the country to be processed - you never can tell, there's a lot to be done."

Labelling differences

When asked about guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and traffic-light labelling, Paice says this is more the purview of Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, because of its links to obesity.

Paice confirms that it will be the Tories' policy to support EU proposals for a mandatory GDA-based front of pack food label and that additional traffic-light or colour-coded information will be voluntary. Promotion of traffic-light labelling by the government and the Food Standards Agency would stop under the Tories.

Another area of interest for Paice is carbon labelling, although no standard has yet been agreed. However, the day after the interview, the British Standards Institute announced a new method by which the food industry could assess its carbon footprint.

The project, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and co-ordinated by an environmental and agricultural consultancy, has led to the development of the British Standards Institute Publicly Available Specification (PAS 2050) for assessing the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services - enabling food businesses to use a consistent approach to assessing the carbon footprints of their products.

However, something that Paice believes is even more important than carbon labelling is water footprint labelling on food. "The industry is in position for this type of labelling to be rolled out on a large scale," he says.

To sum up, Paice believes that the more the public are encouraged to buy British, the more ingredients and raw materials manufacturers will have at their disposal.

"Because at the end of the day, if the farming industry is under threat, then so is the UK's food manufacturing industry." FM

Related topics: Dairy, Processing equipment

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