Exclusive: Supermarket watchdog faces review amid fears it is failing farmers

Christine Tacon is the first adjudicator, but her office has been criticised for being under-resourced and toothless

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The Independent Online

The remit of the supermarket ombudsman is set to be reviewed by the Government, following criticisms that it does not have the power to protect farmers from unfair trading practices. 

The Groceries Code Adjudicator was set up three years ago to help suppliers  squeezed on their profits and terms by powerful supermarkets. 

Christine Tacon is the first adjudicator, but her office has been criticised for being under-resourced and toothless. She was unable to fine Tesco for delaying millions of pounds worth of payments to suppliers because the breaches occurred before the watchdog was granted the power to levy a 1 per cent penalty of UK revenue last April.  

Farmers have also complained that much of their industry is not protected by the adjudicator, as her remit only extends to direct suppliers. The products of most players in the industry reach supermarket shelves through middlemen. 

Limiting the remit to direct suppliers to the 10 biggest supermarkets and retailers has in effect excluded dairy farmers that produce milk on a small scale. Drops in the milk price recently took the number of British dairy farmers to below 10,000 for the first time. 

A source close to the Business Secretary Sajid Javid told The Independent he is “open” to altering the remit. The source added: “He has had a meeting with a few colleagues and said he will go with the evidence either way.” 

Ben Reynolds, deputy co-ordinator at the food and farming charity Sustain, said: “We applaud the work of the adjudicator to date, but would welcome an extension to its remit to better protect smaller farmers and producers from unfair trading practices. We would also like to see the strengthening of the adjudicator’s investigative powers, and power to fine companies breaching the code.”

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader who represents rural Westmorland and Lonsdale, said: “The adjudicator must include farmers… I will be asking Business and [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] ministers to do that as soon as possible. Consumers can play a supporting role too, by buying milk from producers directly or from shops that are not treating it as a  loss leader.” 

Ms Tacon will also be called to appear before the Business Committee later this year to discuss her role. 

A Department for Business spokeswoman said: “A review into the Grocery Code Adjudicator is due shortly and we will look at how this can help the farming industry.”