A conference on the grocery supply chain has heard calls for the role of the groceries code adjudicator (GCA) to be extended across the supply chain to better protect primary producers.
Lincolnshire vegetable grower Mark Tinsley said: "I find (dealings with buyers) less collaborative than it's ever been and unless (GCA) Christine Tacon can look at the whole supply chain she won't be able to sort this out."
Food Ethics Council executive director Dan Crossley also called for a "food power adjudicator" to uncover injustices elsewhere in the supply chain. Fairtrade Foundation policy director Barbara Crowther said: "We need to be able to investigate beyond the direct supplier. The question of the GCA's scope should be part of its review in March 2016."
The call was echoed last week by NFU Cymru, which put "extension of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice to all links in the supply chain" top of its top 10 policy asks for the 2015 general election.
NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie also said the GCA's role "needs to be widened, to allow abuse at all stages of the supply chain to be addressed, not just that final link".
But addressing the conference, organised by Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on 14 March, Tacon said: "It's not for me to say how my role should be extended. What I am trying to do is a big job, changing the culture of these businesses as much as getting them to understand the code. We may need a new generation of buyers before it is accepted that 'we don't do this'." But she added: "If other retailers hit £1bn turnover, they too fall within my remit, and some are close to this."
British Growers chief executive Jack Ward told the conference: "Our members can feel the benefits of what Christine is doing and some of the worst excesses are being scaled back."
But he pointed out: "British horticulture has great opportunities, so why isn't the sense of optimism shared by everyone? It comes down to the confidence in the future of the system - can they invest for future growth? Production of most crops is on a one-year cycle, so anything that delays payment delays investment, which they need to recoup as soon as possible."
Tacon responded: "I am getting comments that it's getting better. Given the hugely competitive retail environment, you would expect it to be getting worse. But a shorter, more collaborative supply chain is one of my goals."
In a YouGov survey carried out by the GCA's office last year, eight out of 10 suppliers said they experienced possible preaches of the code. "There are more than 8,000 suppliers, but I got fewer than 700 responses," Tacon said, urging all suppliers to respond to this year's survey by 1 May. "Even if you have had nothing happen, I need to know good news too."
While retailers are obliged to have code compliance officers and to train their buyers in the code, understanding of it remains patchy among suppliers, she said. "Out of 8,000 suppliers fewer than 500 are trained in the code," she added. "More than half of the calls to our office are not in its scope. You need to be able to knock it on the head when it happens."
Trust also remains an issue. "Only 38 per cent of suppliers say they would come to me," said Tacon. "A huge proportion fear retribution. I have a duty to retain your anonymity, but if you are the only one I will potentially breach that confidentiality by going to the retailer. That's where it helps to have a lot of input and where trade associations can come in. It's a big opportunity for them."
Barbara Crowther added: "One supplier we know of took a complaint to the GCA, won its case, but was then dropped by the supermarket in the next email. Fears of retribution are not unfounded."
"Asda wants to be Britain's most trusted retailer and we won't get there by beating up suppliers. Our fresh-produce sourcing arm IPL is also covered by the code because they are wholly owned by Asda. 'Forensic auditing' was our number one complaint from suppliers. Agreeing (not to audit sales beyond a two-year period) was the right thing to do and we are looking at restricting (the period) even further. It's for those who have not signed to explain why they haven't. Price cuts don't necessarily mean that less is paid to the supplier. You are more likely to stimulate demand so actually the supplier benefits."
Alex Simpson, code compliance officer, Asda