Buying British project could close food gap: Producing the right foods and marketing them well could halve the pounds 5bn cost of the UK's imports. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
BRITISH bacon, British tomatoes, and even British lettuces and sweet peppers are becoming easier to buy as a result of a project which aims to reduce Britain's pounds 4.7bn food trade gap.

Eventually almost half of this food trade gap could be abolished by producing the right foods in Britain and marketing them carefully, experts believe. This would reduce Britain's overall trading deficit which was pounds 5.4bn last year.

Already millions of pounds previously spent on foreign goods has been switched to British producers as a result of the project, which is being organised by major supermarkets and Strathclyde University. Safeway alone has switched pounds 41m of purchases from abroad to Britain during the last financial year.

One of the first areas to be tackled by the Strathclyde Food Project was the pounds 1.6bn trade deficit in bacon, ham and pork products. Rob Murdy, managing director of marketing and trading at Safeway, believes that it will be possible virtually to eliminate this deficit within a few years. 'We used to buy amazing amounts of bacon and ham in Holland and Denmark simply because it was convenient,' Mr Murdy said. 'They could supply us with the large quantities we needed. The British bacon companies were mostly small and could not supply us with the volume we required - the equivalent of 7,000 pigs a week altogether.'

Over the last year Unigate has set up a large processing factory, which is supplying much of Safeway's need from one source. Now more than half of the pig products sold in their stores are of British origin, compared with 20 per cent previously.

The large supermarkets have had a similar problem with tomato production in the UK, which tends to be undertaken by a large number of small producers. The Strathclyde project has organised a list of producers which it sells to retailers for a fee. As a result, Safeway was able to obtain 50 per cent of its tomatoes from British producers last year, compared with 25 per cent the previous year.

'Continental producers have a long history of exporting food and so have developed the markets to concentrate the produce,' Mr Murdy said. 'A buyer can get what he wants virtually at the press of a button. Our markets are still more geared to local or regional distribution.'

Regional produce was identified as another area which could be expanded if items could be obtained in sufficient quantities for supermarkets. Inspired by the project, Safeway, Tesco and Asda have organised buying fairs in Scotland, Devon, York and elsewhere so that local producers can promote their wares.

'We have identified 60 products in these fairs, which we are going to sell regionally,' Mr Murdy said. 'In the past we have not been organised to buy and sell on a regional basis but we have learnt from the French who do a lot of it.' Local cheeses, hams, cakes, and confectionery are now finding their way into Safeway supermarkets. And Safeway expects that some of these products will be sufficiently successful to expand sales into neighbouring regions. Research and development is also closing the food trade gap as producers of vegetables, and particularly soft fruit, find ways of extending the season and competing with produce from warmer climates.

Clive Black, food policy adviser of the National Farmers' Union and one of the organisers of the Strathclyde project, said: 'British strawberries are always in demand because of their flavour. They compete very well with imported varieties and growers have been particularly successful in extending the season.'

However, competition in some areas, such as poultry, is made more acute by the public demand for high standards of welfare for the birds and high food safety standards. Precautions against salmonella, the cost of inspections and the high cost of feed has meant that 18 per cent of the poultry trade was lost abroad where standards of hygiene and welfare are not always so high.