Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)



  520. I think you said you did not really have the same information about your web site but you have had lots of hits on the web site. What sort of information are you providing? Would that lead you to guess as to who is coming? Are they returning?
  (Mr Howells) I think a broad range from media to consumers to farmers to retailers, etcetera, because of the breadth of information that is on there, from welfare advice to farmers about lambing outdoors, for example, through to interpretation of the movement licences, etcetera. A wide range.

  521. So fairly technical information.
  (Mr Howells) Technical information and position statements. So the industry would be using it as a source, whether it be farmers or industry or—

  522. Do you believe your telephone line is an effective replacement for those who do not have access to the internet?
  (Mr Howells) That is a good question, actually, and in some respects we have actually used the two things together. So, for example, where a farmer has telephoned on Saturday seeking details of how to get licences, we have actually been able either to fax them the information or E-mail the information to them direct.

  523. Clearly, from your memorandum, your staff have had to become quite knowledgeable about the various Government schemes on which they are answering the questions. The obvious question is: have you been in a position to form an opinion on the effectiveness of these schemes themselves?
  (Mr Howells) We actually have been participating as a member of the stakeholder meetings on every Friday with the Government, so we have actually been helping behind the scenes, as it were, to formulate those schemes. One of the particular examples I would use is where we were talking about taking meat from infected areas, which initially under EU regulations had to have a cross stamp on the pack of meat. We felt very early on that consumers would respond negatively to anything with a mark, a health mark, crossed out. We undertook consumer research into that, worked with the retailers, and identified—indeed provided information to Government—that that was unacceptable to consumers, and we were able to move into an alternative scenario where a GB mark is now used to signify meat from infected areas.

  524. I am not quite sure that I have had an answer to my question. I am really asking not whether you had an input to the scheme—which I think you are saying to me, Mr Howells—but whether you would be in a position to judge the effectiveness of the scheme. Have the schemes been actually meeting their objectives?
  (Mr Howells) Certainly, in terms of the movement to slaughter during the first week or after the first week, that was seen by the industry as a means of the chain, if you like, moving quickly after a week's shutdown. That was an example, if you like, of good implementation.

Mr Jack

  525. You have a great deal of knowledge about the world market of meat because you have to put the British industry into that context, and it is quite clear from your submission that you also have a great deal of technical expertise to contribute in the context of foot and mouth outbreaks. Given that foot and mouth is endemic in certain countries, did you give any report or commentary to Government ahead of the outbreak in this country about your fears and concerns about foot and mouth and the vulnerability of the United Kingdom to a possible outbreak ahead of the start of this particular outbreak?
  (Mr Howells) No, we provided no information on that, no view on that.

  526. So it never troubled you—and we are going to come on to it later—that there was material coming into the United Kingdom from areas that were potentially vulnerable. Because I notice, for example, that one of the areas of expertise that you highlight here is industry guidance notes on farm bio-security, and Mr Barr has told us that he understands about risk analysis. Well, it looks like foot and mouth came from outside the United Kingdom and that was one hell of a risk, why did you not comment on it?
  (Mr Howells) Import regulations and surveillance is actually not an area of competence for the Meat and Livestock Commission.

  527. No, but the vulnerability and well-being of the United Kingdom livestock industry has been put hugely at risk by virtue of this outbreak. You look at risks. Did it never occur to the MLC that some commentary might be appropriate? Even asking the question of Government: "What are you doing to make certain our defences are up?"
  (Mr Howells) It was not a question we asked.

  528. So it never occurred to the MLC that there was an external risk?
  (Mr Howells) I guess that following Classical Swine Fever it could have been an area that we raised, given that the suspected source of that in East Anglia was the same. But we did not.

  529. It could have been or did?
  (Mr Howells) I do not think it has been finally proven, has it?

  Dr Turner: We will come back to that.

Mr Todd

  530. The Minister has said he is drawing up a recovery plan for the livestock sector. What would you say should be his top three priorities? In your memorandum you have listed quite a lot of things that perhaps he ought to consider doing. What do you think are the most urgent?
  (Mr Barr) I think the first priority is to restore consumer confidence and that means you have to understand the consumer before you do that—and we have the research and the consumer work that we are doing. So we have to understand the concerns and address those concerns, and address them in a very truthful and transparent way. I believe the consumer must come first. That has to be the first priority. I think we have to prime the recovery by a massive campaign to get it going. As far as the demand chain restructuring, I think you have to concentrate on how you can improve communication up and down the chain. I think you have to develop a complete traceability system throughout the chain. I think you need better linkage to growth areas.

  531. I think we are getting beyond the three here, but go on.
  (Mr Barr) No, if we take the three: market recovery is the first part; the demand chain restructuring; and probably the reform of farm practice. Those would be the three. I was probably subdividing it for you, so I apologise. I confused you.

  532. No. You have set out a lot of action points very helpfully in your memo. To what extent have you discussed your proposals with other players within the livestock food chain who are obviously critical to the success of any venture that you might take.
  (Mr Barr) I think we are in constant consultation with the whole of the chain to try to find the best way to help them, and in addition to that we are also facilitating a forum where we will get the industry together, which is the retailers, the food service people, the consumer groups, and also invite international experts in logistics and marketing to provide a forum to say, "Is there something that we should look at?" because it is very, very obvious at this stage we should also have a fresh look. So you should consult industry—and obviously the farmers' unions, etcetera, will be included in that—but we should also take a fresh appraisal of the whole thing. So we will really try and tackle it from a number of ways. To me—there is nothing I can do about foot and mouth now—it has to be: "What is the recovery plan?" and how quickly we can get that under way.

  533. From your initial appraisal of the sector, would you have said this sector is comfortable in working together in partnership? That is not an impression this committee has drawn when it has interviewed the various segments of the sector previously.
  (Mr Barr) I would say that it is a sector that is most uncomfortable at working together. It even surprises me that, you know, you meet groups of farmers and their biggest competition is the man three miles down the road. At the risk of digressing—and do stop me if you wish—

  534. No, it hinges on the credibility of what is going to be attempted here.
  (Mr Barr) I chaired the IGD food project which was really set up after BSE. It had a number of things to. One was to produce a beef report and to look at how we could get beef back on the menu as quickly as possible; to look at the threat to the chicken industry and try to get an assured chicken scheme going; and to look at horticulture. As part of looking at horticulture, the company I then worked for were the largest controlled atmosphere horticulturists in the world. They were relatively self-satisfied that we were quite good—and we tended to benchmark the Dutch—but, as part of that food project exercise we benchmarked the Japanese and Americans and found that it was a myth and we were hopelessly behind. We also did intensive work with the consumer and we found, rather to our surprise, that they did not like our tomatoes: they thought they were thick-skinned, the taste had gone, etcetera. We were probably led by the horticulturists, and all that really mattered was yield, but, of that total, only 48 to 52 per cent at that time were suitable for Class A's. So part of the benchmarking exercise—it suggested a mass of things, but the short story—was that we took a 10 per cent reduction in yield; but by last year 97 per cent of the crop were suitable for the supermarket or Class 1's, so profit had increased significantly. The consumer, from what was becoming a two to three per cent decline in the years before that, began to recognise that the product had improved. Health messages came through as part of the adjunct research, such as "They're good for you". So an industry that would have been wiped out by the strong pound, was in fact world class—and I would say absolutely world class—at this moment in time, but, more importantly, whereas all the growers worked in total isolation, a very collaborative style was established where best practice was transferred immediately and people were encouraged to pool resource.

  535. How long did this transformation take?
  (Mr Barr) A lot less than it will for the meat industry, that is for sure, because it is a smaller industry. But I do not think one can look at it like that. I think the process has to start. What we need to establish is at least groups of best practice, because we have to make a start on this and it is a road I have been down and we have to try to do it.

  536. What is your realistic appraisal of a time frame.
  (Mr Barr) To make any real difference?

  537. A real difference, yes.
  (Mr Barr) I would think that we will have some best practice, and, moving forward, that you would find tangible—bearing in mind it is not good enough to say we are doing it, you are going to want proof we have done it—and I would think that would be two to three years, but I think within five years we can make a very, very serious difference. But, in all of those exercises, I have found that 20 per cent of it can make up to 80 per cent of the difference.

  538. Which leads one to suggest that the £25 million that you have asked for from the Government may be a drop in the ocean unless it is substantially supplemented by contributions from other parts of the supply chain who see it as in their interest to cooperate towards this goal.
  (Mr Barr) I think the beauty of the £25 million spent promptly is it gives you a restoration of levies, and it might be in part of the assessment that the levy is used in different ways from that which it has been historically. That is a decision one has to make. But, to me, the starting point—and I will always come back to that one—is that we have to look at the consumer, because, as well as the obvious figures that have been quoted by Gwyn, we also have consumers that just do not know what to do with meat. I saw a consumer in a retailer about four weeks ago who had bought six packets of sliced beef. I said, "Do you give your husband one every night?" and she said, "No, that is our Sunday lunch." It is a very, very expensive way to do Sunday lunch. But obviously she did not know what to do with it. At the end of the day, if the consumer does not, we have to make our product more consumer friendly, and, rather than say, "We can't do this," we have to say, "How do we satisfy her demand."

  539. The targets you have set for 2003 for exports, how had you arrived at those? Was that a finger-in-the-air job or a bit more than that?
  (Mr Bansback) I am sure you know us better than that! Clearly, it is difficult to look two years out and say where we are going to be, but we felt we had to give some idea and we based it, I suppose, on two things in particular. First of all, we have customers at the moment who are frustrated at not being able to get hold of the product that they would like to from us. They have given us a clear idea that as soon as we are able to supply it again, they will be willing to take. Secondly, we have had a reasonable look and we have done a longer analysis of the amount of supply and the amount that the home market is likely to take up and hence the amount of export surplus that we are going to have. If I could just add a final thing, which is that there are parts of the carcass and parts of the animal population, in terms of sow meat and light lambs and so on, which very much lend themselves to being exported, and those are likely to get back into markets relatively quickly.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 June 2001