Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
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
(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
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 identifiedindeed
provided information to Governmentthat 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 schemewhich I think you are saying to me,
Mr Howellsbut 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.
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 youand we are
going to come on to it laterthat 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
(Mr Howells) Import regulations and surveillance is
actually not an area of competence for the Meat and Livestock
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
529. It could have been or did?
(Mr Howells) I do not think it has been finally proven,
Dr Turner: We will come back to that.
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 thatand 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 industryand obviously
the farmers' unions, etcetera, will be included in thatbut
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 methere
is nothing I can do about foot and mouth nowit 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 digressingand
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 goodand we tended to benchmark the Dutchbut,
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
exerciseit suggested a mass of things, but the short storywas
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
classand I would say absolutely world classat 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
(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 tangiblebearing
in mind it is not good enough to say we are doing it, you are
going to want proof we have done itand 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 pointand I will
always come back to that oneis 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