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POLL: Defra doesn't know how much British food it serves

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 14, 2013

By Graeme Demianyk

Defra
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The Government is under fire after scrapping a register naming and shaming Whitehall canteens, hospitals and prisons failing to serve British food.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was accused of "incompetence " for no longer collecting procurement data, despite being charged with persuading people to buy more domestic produce.

In a written parliamentary question, Defra said it "does not hold figures relating to the source of food purchased by central government directly". But as recently as 2010 it published a report on the "proportion of domestically produced food used by government departments and also supplied to hospitals and prisons". The decision is embarrassing as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson spoke of the need to close the "dessert deficit" – a reliance on imported puddings – within days of taking office last year.

Mary Creagh, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "It is disappointing that Defra, which champions British food, has no idea how much British produce is being bought by government.

"The Environment Secretary has lectured us all to buy British but is too incompetent to know what his government is doing."

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, who serves on the rural affairs select committee and was formerly a farmer, said it was "nonsense" he had been forced to table a series of parliamentary questions to uncover Whitehall's buying habits.

He added: "The Government should be leading by example, but they are not."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said: "You have to practise what you preach."

In October the NFU will attempt a world record for the number of people sitting down for a roast beef dinner at one time – 2,000 diners – at the Bath and West Showground. "Every scintilla of that meal will be British," said Mr Johnson. "The cheapest option does not always have the best economic outcome, not if it ruins the rural economy as a result."

Former farmer George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, and a member of the rural affairs select committee, said: "I would like to see a renewed effort to ensure government departments buy food that meets British standards so it is important that there is transparency about the procurement of food."

Defra argues the register was a "one-off initiative".

The WMN has for more than a decade spearheaded a Buy Local campaign encouraging consumers to support farmers and producers in the region. The public sector is itself a huge customer for the industry, buying about £2 billion of food per year.

In the question, Defra was asked "what proportion of food purchased by central Government Departments was procured from UK food producers". In response, minister Richard Benyon wrote: "Defra does not hold figures relating to the source of food purchased by central Government directly or indirectly through its contractors."

In February 2010, Defra published details of its so-called Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative – its third edition of the report. The register revealed wild variations in departments adopting the "buy British" ethos. For example, not a single rasher of bacon served to the armed forces in the field was British and British beef was only being sourced 4% of the time in the Home Office headquarters.

In 2011, the coalition Government launched a strategy to get Whitehall buying food that meets British welfare standards. Departments are expected to report annually on their progress, but there is no central list. A Defra spokesman said: "Defra collected food origin information as part of a one-off initiative that ended in 2009. The Government Buying Standard on Food and Catering encourages departments to use sustainable food to at least the same welfare and production standards as the UK."

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was accused of "incompetence " for no longer collecting procurement data, despite being charged with persuading people to buy more domestic produce. Should we buy British food?

 

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