Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 427)



Mrs Organ

  420.  Would it not be fairer, instead of the levy just being levied on food retailers, if it was all along the food chain, so that it included the processors and producers, particularly as the incidents relating to food safety are more likely to be that end of the food chain than the other? Would it not be fairer that we put the levy right across the chain?
  (Mr Robertson)  Probably not because, if we are talking about producers, we are talking about an industry that is in the worst recession for 30 years at the moment. Any extra costs are not welcome. We should bear this more carefully in mind and also again the European aspect. No one else in Europe is going to be paying these levies, so why should we?

  421.  That is not quite true, because the Swedes and the Danish companies are already levied. The argument that we would then be making our farm producers and our processors anticompetitive within the EU is not wholly a substantiated argument because already Swedish and Danish companies are levied.
  (Mr Robertson)  I believe some of the Danish ones are under legal challenge at the moment. I am not sure of the result of that. They are again putting the question why should we pay it and no one else.

  422.  I can understand that small businesses, particularly in the agricultural sector, do not wish to see another cost on them but they must have some responsibility for the fact that they want to improve consumer confidence and raise standards in the food chain. That is what the Food Standards Agency is all about and that is what the public wants. Should they not therefore be involved in some measure for the contribution for the extra activities of the Food Standards Agency?
  (Mr Robertson)  We are concerned about this need to address consumer confidence because once again I say why do we not have it in the rest of Europe. Why do the French not have to invest a lot of money to make consumers confident? I think it is over-stressed. There is no obligation on farmers, for example, to suddenly cut their incomes just because they wish to reassure consumers. This is really not on, especially with the low incomes we are facing at the moment. We should reconsider whether this is just a political requirement suddenly after BSE. I think it is a lot to do with BSE. Therefore, we should address BSE on its own and not worry so much about this idea of consumer confidence. In the case of farm assurance, for example, this has been stressed as a reason for farm assurance. We find now it is only just the four supermarkets who are requesting farm assurance, also because they do not have to pay for it, which is another reason to suspect it.

Mr Paterson

  423.  The premise of the Bill is that there is a lack of public confidence in food. Have you had any representation that leads you to believe that there is lack of confidence in food? The consumption of beef is now well above the level before BSE. Do you have evidence that the public is worried about the safety of food now?
  (Mr Robertson)  If we take BSE, yes.

  424.  Apart from BSE, which is behind us. Beef consumption is now well above those levels. Do you have evidence that people are worried, because the premise of this Bill is that there is serious public concern.
  (Mr Robertson)  There again, we say what about the rest of Europe? Why is it not concerned? Should we think about that? In other words, put extra costs on British farming, if you like, but you must do the same for Europe. We must get European agreement. We are after all in a single market now. We should be obeying the same rules as the Common Market. If we are going to set up extra rules, is this not in itself against the competition rules, Articles 85 to 94 of the Treaty of Rome? I throw that at you.


  425.  In relation to the levy, do you represent retail outlets or solely farming?
  (Mr Robertson)  I am chairman of the Agro-Food Committee which does cover food.

  426.  It would cover retail outlets as well?
  (Mr Robertson)  Yes, although we also have a trade section so we are a little bit in between.

  427.   Obviously the levy is a cost. It is proposed at the moment to be a flat rate cost on retail outlets of £90 although it is a business cost so I suspect it will be less than that, given that it is tax allowable. I wonder whether the Federation has a single position in relation to whether they object to it or not.
  (Mr Robertson)  We do not object very much to the £90 charge but we would like to see it adjusted for larger outlets basically. We think it is unfair on the very small corner shop because it is a fairly substantial increase. He is already having to sell his goods at a higher margin than, say, supermarkets, for a lower return. We would like to see a gradual transition. I think this is relatively more expensive but I do not think it should be particularly relevant to the Food Standards Agency as such. We have no great problem with that rate as a starting point.

Chairman:  Could we thank you very much indeed for coming along and giving evidence this morning? I have no doubt in the next two or three weeks you will see our report and hopefully some of the things you have said today will be in there.

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