When the foot and mouth crisis was at its height in the spring, there was much talk about the pros and cons of vaccination versus slaughter of animals to keep the spread of the disease under control. It emerged today that Peter Blackburn, then chief executive of the UK subsidiary of Nestlé, the world’s largest food group, and head of the Food and Drink Federation, may have been instrumental in forcing the government to abandon plans to start vaccination.

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Nestle S.A.

According to a report in leading UK daily the Guardian, which claims to have seen the minutes of a meeting held at the prime minister’s country residence of Chequers, with the support of the Treasury, scientists and ministers, Blair had decided to go ahead with vaccination in April, but was subject to extreme resistance from parts of the food industry which feared a collapse of the UK’s food export market.

The report claims that, unable to overcome objections raised by the powerful food manufacturing and retail lobby, when the vaccination plans crumbled, ministers chose to blame farmers for refusing to accept vaccination. Nick Brown’s failure to secure the agreement to vaccinate from the food industry is widely blamed for his demotion from the prominent position as head of MAFF in the May cabinet reshuffle.

Peter Blackburn was not only CEO of Nestlé UK, he was also the president of the powerful Food and Drink Federation, which represents the interests of food manufacturers in the UK. Indeed, the Federation has pointed out to just-food.com that Blackburn attended the meeting purely in his capacity as head of the FDF, and was there to represent the interests of the entire industry, and not just Nestlé.

The report claims that Blackburn wrote to Blair “spelling out strongly his belief that British manufactured food exports, worth up to £8bn (US$11.7bn) a year, would be compromised and would lead to a permanent ban on UK meat and dairy products in many major non-EU markets”.

Nestlé exports £5m of chocolate confectionery that relies on British milk.

The meeting was attended by powerful industry representatives including the Food Standards Agency, the Soil Association, the National Farmers’ Union, the FDF, Lord Haskins, Terry Leahy (then Tesco MD) and the British Retail Consortium, as well as government ministers.

According the minutes of the meeting, all parties left with the belief that a vaccination programme would be launched. Public resistance to mass culls was mounting, and just as importantly the slaughter policy had failed to halt the outbreak. Lord Haskins, chairman of major food manufacturer Northern Foods and now the government’s farming guru, said “I certainly went away [from the meeting] thinking they were going to vaccinate.”

If this report stands up, it raises important questions about the role of heavily biased interest groups and in particular multinational corporations in determining government policy.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

US Chocolate Confectionery Market Profile (download)

Chocolate Confectionery in the USA (download)

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Chocolate Confectionery