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Trade Talk
Beware the battle of bloated bureaucracy

While we ponder food security and the spectre of food shortages, perhaps we should acknowledge how government tackled this in the past, albeit in radically different circumstances.

In World War I the government requisitioned food and fixed prices. In 1917, a Food Controller was charged with "preventing the risk of immediate starvation and loss of morale". The Ministry of Food's annual turnover ballooned into £900M. It had absolute control of supplies and prices and was later accused of profiteering.

The Ministry of Food paid £1M for four Australian butter shipments - way over the odds. It was discovered the consignments had been bought and sold four times before reaching London.

Bureaucracy was immense. A Cheese (Requisition) Order 1917 was introduced under the Defence of the Realm Act. This was followed by a Bacon, Ham and Lard (Maximum Prices) Order, and another for butter. Imported butter was controlled by The Butter and Cheese Imports Committee, which met no less than 84 times before issuing a 230 page report. Imagine multiplying this by four for devolved administrations today.

The Food Controller introduced 'meatless days' on which it was forbidden for hotels and restaurants to serve meat - on Tuesdays in London and Wednesdays elsewhere.

In the 1931 world economy crisis, Britain's food imports actually rose when imports to other countries had stopped. In reaction to this a Re-organisation Commission for Pigs and Pig Products was set up and import quotas introduced.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the government decreed that prices of provisions must be approved by the Food Department by telegram in code. Consequently prices remained closer to those pre-war than for non-foods. Bacon was requisitioned by the Ministry of Food and called 'National Bacon'. The Bacon Importers National (Defence) Association was set up to distribute it. At one stage the government ordered too much and ran out of cold storage space. The bacon ration was then doubled and the price reduced.

When rationing ended, bacon sales did not increase, possibly because people had become used to eating less. Another glut resulted. MAFF, as the Ministry of Food had then become, conducted a campaign to stimulate demand and import quotas were introduced.

This is only a snapshot of what happened in one area! Let's hope it isn't repeated.

Clare Cheney

director general

Provision Trade Federation

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