British Farmers Upset At Supermarkets, Gov't Policy

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

London ( - A British farming organization called on its members to stop selling milk and other perishable goods on Friday to protest government farming policy and the purchasing power of British supermarket chains.

Farmers For Action (FFA) called for a 24-hour suspension of food deliveries in an attempt to disrupt supply chains at the start of a three-day British holiday weekend.

U.K. farmers have been hit hard by successive food scandals, including uproars over "mad cow" and hoof-and-mouth diseases.

FFA says that unless the government acts to secure the farming industry, British produce may become a thing of the past. FFA leaders say they don't want handouts but would prefer a government watchdog committee to ensure that farmers are being paid a fair price for their goods.

"The government is failing to act on the serious problems that the industry is facing at this moment," said FFA chairman David Handley.

The group puts part of the blame on increased purchasing power held by a handful of major supermarket chains, which the FFA says are driving farm-direct produce prices down.

"We've got no problem with any business making a profit," Handley said. "But the situation right now is that the supermarkets are taking every penny of margin for themselves. We are up against the dominant power of the supermarkets."

The country's largest farmers' group disavowed Friday's protest, however.

In a statement, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) acknowledged that the British farm industry was facing a crisis but said suspension of deliveries was "an extremely risky strategy that could seriously backfire."

"If it results in a single extra French apple or Argentine steak on British supermarket shelves because (stores) can't get hold of home-grown food, then it will have done more harm than good," the NFU said.

"Furthermore, such action could damage the relationship between individual farmers and their buyers and lead to long-term financial losses for the farmer concerned," the statement said.

Handley admitted food shortages could result from a wide-scale boycott, but insisted that his goal "was not to inconvenience the general public in any way."

"Some disruption may occur, but what are we supposed to do?" he said. "We can sit down and die, or we can fight back for this industry."

Handley was the leader of a relatively successful protest in the fall of 2000, when he led a coalition of truck drivers, farmers and businessmen in a blockade of petroleum refineries. The protestors, organized under the banner of the People's Fuel Lobby, were upset at rising U.K. gasoline taxes.

The blockade caused widespread disruption to travel and deliveries. Although the group did not win a tax reduction, the government eventually agreed to freeze fuel tax.

The FFA claimed Friday that about 20 percent of an estimated 350,000 British farmers would participate in the current action -- a figure that the NFU said was grossly exaggerated.

"We actually haven't been able to find any farmers taking part," an NFU spokeswoman said.

Leading British supermarket chains reported no food shortages Friday afternoon.

"We don't anticipate any problems at all over the weekend," said a spokesman for chain store Tesco.

The supermarkets deny the FFA's charges of exploitation and say they are simply responding to market forces.

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