A bigger slice of the pie

29 November 2007
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29 November 2007

Despite the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative, local suppliers are still struggling to win government food contracts. Paul Snell reports

The increasing popularity of farmers' markets and farm shops has shown there is a large appetite among the UK public for locally sourced British food. So it will come as a disappointment to many to find the ingredients in the shepherd's pie they tuck into in the office canteen have probably not come from the UK.

Government figures released this month show just over half of food bought by the public sector is produced in the UK (News).

In 2003, the government set out its Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative (PSFPI), which outlines plans to buy more sustainable food - one element of which is encouraging and supporting local suppliers to win government food contracts.

But the plan has been criticised, most recently in the Conservative Party's Quality of Life report, for a lack of targets and no way of monitoring its success.

Clare Smith, assistant food chain adviser at the National Farmers' Union, which works with the government to support the plan, says: "Departments are paying more attention to it, but the difficulty comes in communication because buying food varies so much between departments."

The benefits of buying local or British sourced food seem obvious. There are environmental advantages, with food having to travel less distance from field to plate.

Local economies and suppliers are also beneficiaries. Liz Kenny, PSFPI co-ordinator for the West Midlands, says: "Buying locally produced food puts more money back into the local economy. For every £10 spent locally, £25 is put back into the economy."

And Smith highlights the security advantages of buying locally. There is the reassurance of the rigour of UK quality and environmental standards, and the added benefit that supporting local producers now will secure supply in the future.

So what is holding buyers back? The government argues EU public procurement rules prevent discrimination in favour of local or British suppliers - a "lazy man's excuse" according to the Tories. But there are ways to increase the chances of local suppliers winning business.

The NFU has drawn up a model clause, which allows buyers to seek guarantees of traceability or seasonality of food. Kenny adds that buyers should be asking for "sustainable" rather than "local" in tenders, allowing them to specify details such as the regularity and timeframe of deliveries, giving local suppliers an advantage.

And what of the cost issue? Aren't small local suppliers more expensive? Not necessarily. Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust once spent 60 per cent of its food budget outside the county. It now spends 83 per cent locally, but still spends the same amount, £2.50 per day, on each patient.

But do suppliers have the capacity to serve the public sector? "Some groups are getting together to promote British food but it is a little piecemeal and there is no overarching strategy," says Kirsty Righton, local food project manager at the Soil Association. "We're still a long way from achieving a sustainable supply."

Perhaps the reputation for bureaucracy and a "driven by cost" mentality is putting local suppliers off. "It's a new area for most suppliers, who have not considered the public sector as a market. We need to position the market as an opportunity," says Stuart Thompson, associate director at English Food and Farming Partnerships.

Kenny agrees. "The public sector is a reliable customer, with a set income, set period and a set price. We need early engagement with suppliers even before tendering."

Thompson adds buyers must put time and effort into engaging suppliers and raising awareness. But he warns that suppliers too must have the commitment, structure and attitude to deliver to the sector.


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