Safeway Director of Communications, Kevin Hawkins, did not 'pull any punches' during a recent lecture to The Society of Food Hygiene Technology. He was talking about the food industry, the media and the prospects for change post-foot and mouth, and attacked both the government and the media for scare mongering and trying to apportion blame irrespective of the facts. The annual Lecture was attended by more than 250 members and guests of the Society at the Hotel Intercontinental, London.

Of the media he said that its relationship with the food industry post-GM and BSE had become increasingly adversarial so that foot and mouth had occurred in a context where conflict was already established.

The perception was that power was being abused: the power the big supermarkets and suppliers had over farmers; the power that big supermarkets are said to have over consumers and their ability to drive small business out of business, restricting choice and subsequently boiling up into what was called "rip off Britain"; and the power that the battalions of the food industry and the agro-chemical industry are alleged to have over the way agriculture is conducted and the impact of intensive agriculture on the environment.

"All this focused on the high cost of so-called cheap food and all these strings came together in the early days of foot and mouth," he said.

Lists of so-called comparable items were used to say that UK prices were the most expensive, whilst ignoring the impact of exchange rates and the underlying accounting conventions. "Was it coincidence that the Office of Fair Trading launched an enquiry into the profits of the big four supermarkets within two weeks of the FT carrying the comparative story or, a political directive?" he asked. This focus changed, however, when the Prime Minister made his famous 'arm lock' speech, triggering a spate of anti-supermarket headlines.

The Director of the OFT said he was not confident that excess profits were not being made and referred it to the Commission where a comparative study found no evidence of supermarkets hyping up their margins.

The Commission was sympathetic to suppliers' complaints and talked about a climate of fear existing amongst the ranks of some suppliers. The upshot was the introduction of a Code of Practice.

A survey undertaken by the Commission to assess what the consumer thought, however, showed that 80% felt that supermarkets gave good value or excellent value for money. It was not what the Government wanted to hear, suggested Mr Hawkins. The report was not going to vindicate its anti-supermarket stance. "Then 10 days before the publication of the Commission's Report, came a little example in the art of spin," he said.

The Observer ran a story in two parts, both with very emotional headlines. Two other newspapers carried the story the following day, with the Daily Mail taking a "Making a Killing" approach and The Guardian taking a more balanced view pointing out that it was an embarrassing defeat for the Government's 'rip off Britain' campaign.

Attention was then turned to the media's handling of foot and mouth which, said Mr Hawkins, initially focused on issues such as cost to industry, keeping out of the countryside and the possible shortage of meat. This changed when the Prime Minister made his 'arm lock' speech.

Hard on the heels of this speech came a rash of profiteering allegations, "crude in the extreme," said Mr Hawkins. The suggestion was that the price of meat in the supermarkets was increasing because the market was anticipating a shortage of meat. Prices were going up, therefore supermarkets must be taking advantage to fatten margins.

The BBC followed the same agenda with Watchdog screening a one-hour special, presenting the programme in similar terms.

After the first week, the focus turned to the Government and relevant issues such as why had action not been taken to close down the disgraceful farm at Heddon-on-the-Water? Why were the controls on food imports so lax and why couldn't vaccination be tried?

The issue of food miles also came out of foot and mouth, with supermarkets accused of dragging animals from one end of the country to another. "This will be a bigger problem in the future," he said, "because there will be fewer, bigger but more efficient abattoirs which may well mean that animals will travel longer distances between the farm and the processor."

He also talked about the decline in farm incomes and the lack of farm investment. "The only way forward is to encourage farmers to co-operate and pool their resources, to enter into long-term supply contracts for an assured market, possibly, for a guaranteed minimum price, and to move towards a more collective approach.

"The Government in its turn wants to reduce spending on agriculture and it certainly does not want an action replay of foot and mouth.

"As far as the supermarkets are concerned, they are still regarded as the main driving force behind cheap food and intensive agriculture, and the outcome of the Commission's enquiry and the debate on foot and mouth is best regarded as a verdict of non-proven," he said.

The Society of Food Hygiene Technology
www.sofht.co.uk