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Supermarkets must back British products, say dairy farmers

Published 17/08/2015

From left to right, NFU Cymru president Stephen James, Ulster Farmers Union president Ian Marshall, NFU president Meurig Raymond and NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie deliver a statement outside Defra in London
From left to right, NFU Cymru president Stephen James, Ulster Farmers Union president Ian Marshall, NFU president Meurig Raymond and NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie deliver a statement outside Defra in London
Farmers have been staging protests following a slump in milk prices

Farmers' representatives urged supermarkets to back British products and said they "desperately hope" the Government will follow through on promises made to help the beleaguered dairy industry.

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said Government officials had assured them they would communicate with consumers and supermarkets over issues faced by the industry.

Farmers say the dairy industry is at crisis point and have instigated d ozens of demonstrations over recent weeks, including bringing cattle into supermarkets, to highlight their plight.

Following a meeting between ministers and NFU officials, Mr Raymond said: "From today there are going to be meetings with everyone in our supply chain. It is obviously agreed that the supply chain is not working as well as it should be."

He said "nothing immediate has changed" but added that Government officials have promised to open up communication with consumers and supermarkets.

He said: "There were promises made ... and I desperately hope that they will keep them because there is so much at stake. But we have now got that line of communication and we will carry on driving those messages ... with a common goal of trying to sustain this industry."

Mr Raymond urged supermarkets to help farmers, saying: "Make British produce prominent on retailing shelves, back British. Labelling has got to be sorted out.

"They're going to look at the voluntary labelling policy that was designed a couple of years ago. This will all help give farmers a bit of confidence."

He also suggested the protests were likely to continue, saying: "People are desperate. I would suggest that this won't be the end of the protests because people are desperate and they have got to show their frustration in what ever way they see fit."

He added: " There's a lot at stake. We cannot allow the farming industry at this time to actually reduce otherwise we are going to be relying on imported food a lot more in the years to come."

Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, said the meeting with ministers was "constructive".

She said: "We were pleased to see that the Government is progressing the agenda on public procurement and is keen to support the industry on exports. Dairy UK also renewed its call for the EU Commission to raise the intervention price as we believe this is an urgently needed measure to ease the pressure on the sector.

"In the long term, we need a collaborative approach throughout the supply chain to develop a toolbox to handle the impact of volatility which, as we know, is now an inherent part of the milk market."

Following protests about how much money farmers get from milk production, Aldi, Lidl and Asda have agreed to pay farmers 28p per litre, while Morrisons has launched a brand of milk and cheese to directly support producers.

Farmers estimate that it costs between 30p and 32p to produce a litre of milk but they were being paid an average of 23.66p in June - a drop of 25% in a year.

Last night, tractors and protesters blockaded one of Tesco's biggest distribution centres in the UK, as well as a Farmfoods depot near Avonmouth, Bristol.

The protest was the first to focus on cheese - rather than milk prices - and highlighted the amount imported by supermarkets.

David Handley, chairman of campaign group Farmers For Action (FFA), said the store's value range grated cheddar cheese had three countries of origin, while its "everyday" range yoghurt used German milk.

"This is Tesco - every little helps unless you are a British dairy farmer," he said.

Mr Handley, from Monmouth, said the supermarket paid a cost of production figure to some farmers for liquid milk and mature and extra mature cheese.

Tesco said it already pays above the cost of production for all of its milk lines - more than 30p per litre - and mature and extra mature cheddar, meaning farmers "automatically get a premium" for every pint of Tesco milk. Farmfoods declined to comment.

Today's meeting saw members of the farming industry speak with Environment Secretary Liz Truss as well as ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Following the meeting Ms Truss refused to take questions, but said in a statement: "I recognise the seriousness of the current situation for the dairy industry and for farming as a whole. Our hard-working farmers and the £100 billion food and farming industry are vital for our economy and our countryside.

"A global surplus of milk is causing low prices around the world - well beyond the control of farmers. I want to see this situation taken seriously by the EU who have the means to help farmers manage this volatility and build resilience."

Ms Truss said she would be "emphasising" the need for a futures market and insurance for dairy products when she meets agriculture ministers next month.

She added: "It is in everyone's interest that supermarkets, caterers and the food industry have a security of supply of milk.

"As well as milk, more than 50% of the UK dairy market is in products such as cheese and butter. Yet we have a dairy deficit as less than half the butter and cheese we eat is made from British milk.

"I want to see better branding and clearer labelling of dairy products in supermarkets, retailers and throughout the catering industry so that people know when they are buying British, and we have agreed to have further discussions with the food industry on this."

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "There is no doubt that the farming industry is facing serious challenges, with farmers not even getting back the cost of production. This is a global issue and we need urgent action at a Scottish, UK and EU level to support the industry."

Backing the call for changes to labelling, Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: " Shoppers should be given the information they need to make an informed choice at their supermarket."

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