New Grocer Adjudicator Hopes for Future Built on Trust

UK - After more than 10 years of lobbying from the NFU and its industry allies, the wait for an adjudicator to govern the groceries supply chain is over.
calendar icon 24 January 2013
clock icon 4 minute read

Ben Pike, editor of British Farmer & Grower, spoke to Christine Tacon about the challenges, goals and limitations of her role.

A well-known farming figure has been announced as the groceries code adjudicator – a role which the industry hopes will stamp out bad practice in the supply chain.

Christine Tacon, who used to run the 50,000-acre Co-op Farms operation across England and Scotland, was appointed in January by competition minister Jo Swinson to ensure ‘large supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly and lawfully’.

On paper, her job is simple: regulate interactions between the ten largest supermarkets and their direct suppliers. In reality, challenging huge retail businesses responsible for an annual turnover of £1bn will carry with it some tough tests of character.

“Coming from a commercial background, I’m sure that if we can increase trust between retailers and their direct suppliers, it will lead to greater efficiency and can only have a beneficial impact on the rest of the supply chain,” she said.

Trust may be tough to instil into a relationship which has seen famers bullied into bearing the cost of in-store marketing, or being forced to pay a share of packaging costs that ultimately benefit the retailer.

These practices were reported in the NFU’s Catalyst for Change report last year, along with the fact that, fearing lost contracts, many issues go unreported.

But the adjudicator’s role now allows for these poor practices to be reported by either the farmer or a credible third party like the NFU without fear of retribution.

“Until now the farmer had to go to the compliance officer of the retailer and people were afraid to do that,” Christine said. “What has changed is that they can make an anonymous complaint.”

Under the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill – which will come into full force after it gets its royal assent in the spring – punishments for breaching the agreed code of practice range from forcing supermarkets to tell their customers about what they have done to, ultimately, fining them. Christine told BF&G that she was satisfied the role had the sufficient ‘teeth’ to take on the might of the retailers.

“I can make a retailer advertise nationally what they have done which is the naming and shaming part. Any retailer would be mortified to have to do that.

“I don’t want to get to that point. I would rather talk to the retailers about what they are doing and iron out any bad practices before punishment because sometimes they might not know what they’re doing is wrong.

“The first step is that I can recommend what they can do differently. Then comes the naming and shaming part where I can make them put adverts in national newspapers. The last resort is the fine.”

What Christine can’t do is almost as significant as what she can. “There is some misunderstanding that everyone is going to be paid a fair price,” she said. “My job is to ensure everyone upholds the code of practice and that contracts are adhered to.”

Not every complaint will be investigated either – the department will look at where there are ‘patterns’ reported by numerous suppliers which could lead to ‘four investigations a year’.

Interestingly, the role sits inside the remit of the Vince Cable’s business, innovation and skills department rather than Defra – a department interested in competition laws as well as growth.

For farmers, though, the wait for an adjudicator is over. Now comes the next challenge – ensuring its efficacy.

Further Reading

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Michael Priestley

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