Trade and Agriculture Commission report: ‘bold vision’ or ‘hollow’ promises?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

These words are not mine but a question posed by Speciality Food on publication of the Commission report in March. Given the high profile of the debate around food standards in the run up to the last-gasp Brexit deal, and during the passage through Parliament of the Agriculture bill, the response in the media to the publication of the Report has been surprisingly low-key. It is not as though the fears over imports of chlorinated chicken or intensively reared beef have somehow evaporated nor, indeed, that food exports have been smooth since January – the plight of the fishing sector  to take the most obvious and high-profile example.  And the Commission itself was a direct response to concerns over trade, including a petition with 2.6 million signatures urging the protection of UK food standards and bans on certain pesticides and hormones. So why the muted response in the mainstream media? Possibly the clue lies in the Speciality Food headline. This is one of those reports that can be read in different ways and specialists have done just that. Speciality Food contrast the responses of the NFU and Organic Farmers and Growers. Now these two bodies may have very different views on many issues but it might have been expected that on the issue of British food standards and trade they would have been at one. Instead NFU president, Minette Batters, welcomed the report for its efforts to ‘reconcile the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy’ and for setting out ‘a bold vision to manage those tensions’. By contrast, Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers condemned the report as ‘merely a fig leaf for the UK government to hide behind’. In a letter to Speciality Food, he said, ‘The UK’s agricultural industry faces being eviscerated by a lack of meaningful support and risks being left increasingly vulnerable to the whims of an unstable, imbalanced world food market.’

The TAC Vision

‘The UK has an ambitious trade policy which contributes to a global farming and food system that is fair and trusted by all its participants, including farmers, businesses and citizens, from source to consumption. Our food is safe, healthy, affordable, produced in a way which does not harm the planet, respects the dignity of animals and provides proper reward for those involved.’

So what’s going on?  Well one answer is in the careful wording used in the report. Let me show this with one quote about the need for the Government to develop a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy. The words I have emboldened are the important ones:

‘…an approach to imports which would align with its overall approach to trade liberalisation and seek to lower its tariffs and quotas to zero within trade agreements over a reasonable time period. …contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers. It would be dynamic, recognising the interplay between general trade policy, the provisions of specific free trade agreements and the success of UK advocacy for animal welfare, environmental and ethical standards in international fora.’

A ‘reasonable time period’ implies a fluidity that might or might not deliver in short order what those 2.6 million people wanted, so too the word ‘dynamic’ has a certain slipperiness about it. Not that the Commission is anything other than explicit as to why it has chosen this wording (again I have imposed my own emphasis):

‘We know that we should be practical and recognise that the UK government is currently continuing negotiating a number of free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. There would be challenges resulting from changing this approach in the immediate short-term. Our recommendation is a strategic aspiration for UK trade policy in the medium and longer term.’ 

In other words we might get those higher standards within future trade agreements but not necessarily for these early agreements which, of course, includes the USA. Scarcely surprising then that Vicki Hird of Sustain, and a member of our Expert Panel, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards and the need for strong impact assessments of possible trade deals, but says the report prioritises trade liberalisation over other considerations.

It is quite likely that media attention will escalate as and when the Government responds to the report. It’s a long report and has 22 recommendations which you can see at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-and-agriculture-commission-tac/trade-and-agriculture-commission-final-report-executive-summary

How should the meat food chain be regulated?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

It has become customary for critics of the UK food system to attack the weakness and fragmentation of regulatory arrangements: too many government departments with inadequately demarcated responsibilities, compounded by differences between different parts of the union and the weakness of local government. The usual standard-bearers for this critique might be termed the ‘RRs’ = the ‘resilience radicals’ or even, some might argue, ‘revolutionaries’. For the RRs, resilience is taken to include, amongst other things, a fundamental shift to agro-ecological or organic farming systems, a much more plant-based diet, shorter local food chains, and a decentralised regulatory or governance system that really is first and foremost about nutrition and health. Such radicalism is not new but certainly has gathered pace in the context of COVID, Brexit and the National Food Strategy. But it is not only those who favour sweeping change across the food system as a whole who are voicing concerns. In February, three leading meat trade bodies – the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the British Poultry Council (BPC) – produced a joint report on how food chains are regulated: Food Chain Oversight: An Integrated Model. In many ways their verdict is just as damning as that of the RRs:

‘The UK’s food chain is overseen by a number of different agencies, bodies, authorities and organisations: FSA, DEFRA, PHE, TS, RPA, LA, VMD, Port Health, APHA, etc. No one ‘agency’ has overall responsibility across the whole food chain from farm to port. This approach leads to duplicative bureaucracy, inefficiencies in delivery, confused intelligence gathering, and a decoupling of the food chain resulting in an increased risk of food fraud, hampering enforcement and a waste of resource.’

‘The overlap between the differing agencies involved in the delivering of consumer protective measures along with animal welfare controls provides significant opportunity for streamlining of process and a more joined-up approach to policy formation and delivery. The food chain is fundamentally linked from the point of production to the point of consumption therefore it is entirely logical that the supervision, oversight, enforcement, control, audit and regulation of this production chain should be linked and delivered as one over-arching body.’

 The co-author of the report, Jason Aldiss, holds out the prospect of:

‘… benefits for all, from producers to consumers. Lower costs, lower environmental impacts and a better, more appropriate use of resources resulting in the UK having a world-class regulatory body, fit for purpose and helping drive the country forward in our new post EU trading market.’

 https://meatmanagement.com/meat-trade-bodies-offer-up-changes-to-food-chain-regulation/

As someone with limited experience of the details of the meat processing sector, the specific points that lie beneath the headlines are of considerable interest. For example, the report highlights the lack of join up in the food inspection regime with related inefficiencies of resource use and duplication of effort. Although the report does not spell it out, I assume the authors had in mind the combined efforts of environmental health officers, trading standards officers, official veterinarians, meat hygiene inspectors, food examiners, and port health officers. There may well be others I’m not aware of. The report suggests that instead:

 ‘multi-functioning inspectors should deliver a wide range of inspection processes at each input into the food chain and operate from one central command unit sharing knowledge, intelligence, data and good practice. The current regime operates in closed silos distinct and separate from each other…’

The report also highlights how the current inspection processes are highly manual relying on ‘out-dated and old-fashioned methodologies’, which do not reflect today’s food safety risk factors. It all seems very clear, but when I read a report like this, clearly authoritative but also from a particular perspective (these two things are not necessarily contradictory but need to be kept in mind), I often turn to the academic literature for another view. In this case I stumbled across a paper with a characteristic academic title: ‘Practices of attention, possibilities for care: Making situations matter in food safety inspection’. Written by Stephanie Lavau and Nick Bingham (Sociological Review, 65, pp20-35, July 2017), it takes a rather different approach. As the authors explain, they ‘followed the work of inspection from farm to fork, passing through places such as farms, livestock markets, slaughterhouses, processing factories, cold stores, air and sea ports, restaurants, retail outlets, and food testing laboratories. Over a period of two years and across twenty sites, we work shadowed inspectors with responsibility for delivering official controls of food in the UK.’ They found inspectors felt constrained and troubled by the regulatory changes and streamlining already underway, with some inspectors feeling that their particular expertise was already stretched too thinly across different aspects of food businesses: ‘Amid such rapid and profound change, our concern is that something important about the practices of food safety inspection is in danger of being lost, with very real consequences for the quality of its outcomes in making complex and potentially lethal situations matter.’

So, we have two very different takes on regulation in the meat sector, one from the vantage point of meat processors, the other from inspectors, albeit filtered through the lens of academic sociology.  Neither position is directly related to COVID but one obvious lesson from COVID has been a heightening of both surveillance and risk as important societal issues. My sense is that, although at one level, regulation and inspection in the meat sector seems a highly technical issue, there are real issues to grapple with here and they are important if we are to have efficient and profitable food businesses alongside consumer confidence in both the safety of food and high animal welfare standards. ‘Building back better’ in the food sector needs some of the zeal of the RRs alongside the practical insights of industry itself, leavened with academic insights.

A promising career in…

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In Sky television’s humorous political thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, while on a dinner date the protagonist Jack Ryan describes himself as being in ‘Supply Chain Logistics’. This is cover for his real job as a CIA analyst and anti-terrorist operative. It reminds me of the moment in HBO’s Sopranos, where gangster Tony Soprano answers a question about the nature of his job by saying: ‘I’m in the waste management business’. These comments are both intended as funny moments in the shows – with the joke (if we can call it that) being that a mundane sounding job title conceals something thrilling and illicit. ‘Supply Chain Logistician’ and ‘Waste Management’, are both stereotypes of jobs too banal to warrant further remark and are used to discourage further questions. But given the interest in the food supply chain and food waste over the last year, one can easily imagine a parallel universe. One in which a Supply Chain Logistician or Food Waste Manager are at a party and feel the need to pretend they have another job (a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, perhaps) – to avoid a throng of excited guests asking one hundred and one questions about how the food supply chain really works.

I have been collecting lots of diagrams of the food system and food supply chain this month. I’ve been looking at similarities and differences in how the system and supply chain are represented. Some diagrams are very simple and others are very complex. While there are often similarities, there are also lots of differences too; particularly in the categories used to express stages of the supply chain or elements of the system. It’s all pretty complicated. I’ve been thinking about why that is. Here’s a list of features of the food system that make it hard to understand:

  • Scale: the food system is local, regional, national, international, global
  • Multiplicity: the ‘food system’ is not really one system, but multiple semi-independent systems that interact and feedback to each other
  • Inter-connectivity: there are feedback loops, connections and interactions between food supply chain stages (e.g. manufacturing, retail), but also with broader, and more diffuse social, cultural and political domains
  • Specificity: the factors influencing the system are different depending on what type of food product we are talking about

Having a better understanding of why I’ve found it hard to get my head around the broader food system, I’ve been focusing on the specific food supply chain. In particular, I’ve been learning more about how the middle of the food supply chain works. One nuance I would like to highlight is the distinction between primary and secondary processing, and primary and secondary manufacturing. I found this is in Rachel Ward’s and Andy Kerridge’s 2018 report for the Global Food Security Information Architecture Scoping Project Report (ukri.org) (see Annex 2, p.10). The distinction between ‘processing’ and ‘manufacturing’ in the supply chain is common in representations of the food supply chain, but the sub-division these two processes into two stages provides a more nuanced image. I’ll use the example of a cabbage here to illustrate the distinction. Primary processing doesn’t change the cabbage, but makes it edible by washing or packaging. Secondary processing involves basic changes to the cabbage to make it into an ingredient (e.g. grating a cabbage). Primary manufacturing applies more complex processes to the cabbage, like cooking or fermentation. Secondary manufacturing is making more complex food from multiple ingredients, including cabbage (e.g. adding cabbage to a pie). I found these distinctions very useful as they sub-divide processes in the middle of the food supply chain. Better understanding of what happens to food after it has left the farm and before it is purchased by a consumer is really important.

I will write more about the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain in future bulletins. But for this month, I wanted to also highlight news on anti-food-waste apps. A Guardian article provides a summary: Millions sign up to anti-food-waste apps to share their unused produce | Environment | The Guardian. It’s often said that a third of all food is wasted and the potential for digital solutions is encouraging. I found these an interesting example of consumer to consumer exchange of food. This adds a further stage to the food supply chain beyond the initial consumer purchasing it from a retailer. Like producers selling direct to consumers, the pandemic has created new connections between parts of the supply chain. Given levels of food bank use and food poverty, anything that can be done to limit waste is valuable. I want to learn more about how these apps work, how food safety is managed and personal safety is protected during pick-ups.

As a final note, I would like to encourage any Supply Chain Logisticians, who might find themselves at a post-Covid party, to be themselves. Don’t pretend to be a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, but rather, please answer all those questions about how the food supply chain really works.

Government support for food wholesalers

 

By Tim Wilkinson

We have previously outlined some of the challenges faced by wholesalers as a consequence of the pandemic. Although wholesale businesses were not legally forced to close, they have been adversely affected. The closure of the food service industry dramatically reduced some wholesaler’s customer supply needs. However, with customers like hospitals, care homes and schools many wholesalers could not close entirely, without letting down these important services. Where wholesaler businesses have remained open but worked at reduced capacity, this has depleted cash reserves. While wholesale businesses were, like all businesses, eligible for the furlough scheme, this did not account for overheads such as warehousing or distribution costs. In addition to this, the closure of schools at short notice in January 2021 had costs for wholesalers, who were left with excess stock, additional storage costs and wastage. In February 2021 the Federation of Wholesale Distributors launched a petition [1] requesting the government provide bespoke financial support for the sector.

But targeted support was not granted in the government’s budget on 3rd March. Unlike other businesses in the food system whose financial support was extended in the budget, wholesalers were not given sector specific funding. Business rates relief was extended for eligible businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure – but having been excluded from previous support, wholesalers were not able to access the scheme extended by the budget. Neither were wholesalers eligible for the Restart Fund (which supports hospitals, hotels, gyms and personal care businesses). In early March, it was unclear whether wholesalers would be eligible to apply for local authority grants. These are non-sector specific funds available for all businesses to apply for and allocated on a discretionary basis by the local authority. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors pledged to help its members access this funding.

In mid-March there was news that wholesalers were accessing local authority funding. For instance, a London-based food wholesaler successfully secured half a million pounds of local authority grant funding. However, Fairway Foodservice CEO Chris Binge, quoted in The Grocer said, ‘The general amount a member in England has received is under £10k. There is no consistency in any of it. Different local authorities apply different criteria; some say “no”, one member was awarded £70 per day’. So similar businesses in different local authorities may end up with different fates. While providing much needed support, this discretionary funding did not give targeted sectoral support.

In late March, things changed dramatically. A new £1.5bn business rates relief fund was announced, and a ‘food wholesaler’ was referenced as an example of a potential applicant. This new package is available for all businesses outside retail, hospitality and leisure sectors who have been affected by Covid. But the use of food wholesalers as an example of a business who could receive support is promising for the wholesale sector. The pot will be distributed to ‘sectors that suffered the most economically, rather than on the basis of falls in property values, ensuring the support is provided to businesses in England in the fastest and fairest way possible’ (Gov.UK source). The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has welcomed this news. In the March budget it looked as if wholesalers might remain part of the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain, but the new business rates relief appears to acknowledge the ways the impacts of the pandemic have reverberated down the supply chain.

 

For more information on the wholesale experience over the last year and the sector’s outlook, I found this analysis by The Grocer interesting.

 

[1] I’m signposting this petition for information; it is not an endorsement of it.