Defra critised over lack of British food purchases
DEFRA has been criticised over its poor record in sourcing domestic food at a time when it is pledging to promote British produce.
The Department sources less than one-third of its own food from British producers, a figure that has prompted stinging criticism from Opposition MPs, who claim there is ‘confusion’ within Government over the issue.
Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman was asked in the House of Commons last Thursday to clarify ‘what proportion of food purchased by her own Department is sourced in the United Kingdom’.
She replied that the ‘figure is 18 per cent’, although a Defra spokesman later said this was a mistake and put the actual figure at 30 per cent.
In the Commons, Mrs Spelman explained that World Trade Organisation rules mean that while Defra can require purchasing to British standards in Government procurement, ‘we cannot require produce to be British’.
“We adhere to those rules, and we actively promote Government buying standards involving all Departments sourcing food that is produced to British standards in order to promote those standards,” she said.
Shadow Defra Secretary Mary Creagh seized on the comments, claiming the Government was missing an opportunity to support British farmers and food businesses by buying more British in its £2 billion-a-year food purchases.
She demanded to know why Defra bought less than a third of its food from UK producers in 2011 and what Mrs Spelman ‘intends to do about it’.
She claimed there was ‘confusion across Government’ about how UK souring was measured. For example, ‘Number 10 has not revealed how much of its food is sourced from the UK’, she said.
Mrs Spelman denied any confusion and insisted the figure was just as low under the Labour Government. “The difference is that the Government have placed a requirement on all Departments to procure food to British standards,” she said.
But later, Mrs Creagh said: “Ministers, who are responsible for enforcing the ‘Buy British’ code across Government, sourced less than one third of their food to this standard. Defra seem somewhat confused about their own actions.”
The Defra spokesman described the 18 per cent figure as a ‘mix up’. He said the proportion of food in the Defra canteen sourced from UK producers was 30 per cent. This includes 43.5 per cent of meat, 67 per cent of poultry and just 23 per cent of fruit and vegetables.
He explained that UK sourced is defined as ‘guaranteed UK provenance which can be fully traced back to the source and does not include products ‘of mixed origin’, even though may have been produced or manufactured in the UK.
“Defra’s caterers already source 100 per cent of the milk, pork, and beef that we serve from the UK and we expect to see more quality, high welfare produce in our canteens,” he said.
The controversy will add spice to an Opposition debate on food poverty, scheduled for the House of Commons on Monday afternoon.
Opposition MPs were intending to press the government on rising food prices and its lack progress in introducing the Grocery Code Adjudicator.