Call for a watchdog to curb supermarkets

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AN ALLIANCE is growing between disgruntled farmers, growers, consumer groups and even some producers of branded products for a new regulator for the supermarket industry.

"There is a growing body of opinion that as large retail organisations gain collectively such a large proportion of the market in which they operate, perhaps such entities should be regulated as well," said Colin Breed, Liberal Democrat spokesman on consumer affairs.

Later this month, Mr Breed will publish a report he has commissioned on competition in retailing designed to coincide with the debate surrounding the new competition Bill. The report's recommendations include increased supervision of supermarkets. "The poor old greengrocers were the first to feel the pinch. But now - as supermarkets move into banking, pensions and everything else - it is impossible to say where their power will end," said John Breach, chairman of the British Independent Fruitgrowers Association and leading campaigner for a supermarket regulator.

"Growers are suicidal. But it's also happening in the livestock sector and amongst vegetable farmers. The multiple retailers can't be bothered to deal with small suppliers. It's much easier for them to get on the phone and order crates of apples from abroad."

Archie Norman, chief executive of Asda, one of the UK's "Big Four" retailers, dismissed as nonsense the suggestion the sector might need a new regulator. "That would be a recipe for expensive food. It already a heavily regulated industry," he said.

However, in what looks like a bid to pre-empt criticism, Asda is planning later this year to launch a new campaign to help British farmers. Among the ideas mooted by the company is a plan to extend credit for UK suppliers. "It's not an altruistic move," Mr Norman said. "It makes commercial sense for us because our customers value British goods and products."

Last month, the National Farmers' Union accused supermarkets of over- charging for non-beef meat products.