Benn faces industry

The government's new agriculture supremo, Hilary Benn, faced the industry for the first time at the Royal Show this week.

Challenged on his meat-eating status during the official Show visit the new secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted that he had been a veggie for 35 years. "I am sure that the farming community will judge me for what I do, not what I eat," he said.

Before Benn confirmed that he never eats meat, there had been widespread speculation over how, if true, the industry should handle the new minister.

At least two processors attending the show had expressed alarm that Defra is again being run by someone with no natural empathy with meat eaters.

One said it demonstrated new prime minister Gordon Brown's lack of a deft touch in making such an undiplomatic appointment.

But the National Farmers' Union played down Benn's vegetarian status. President Peter Kendall said the new minister had handled the issue of his vegetarianism with great skill. He appeared very keen to engage and to learn. "I want a debate with him about the industry, not what his lifestyle is," he said.

NFU spokesman Anthony Gibson said that Benn seemed to be "open, listening, straightforward and 'un-spun'". And former MLC chairman and the architect of the government's current farming and food strategy, Sir Don Curry, shared a platform with the new minister at the show.

Asked afterwards by MTJ if he would be interested in joining Brown's 'government of all the talents' he hesitated, then failed to rule out the possibility at some point.

While playing down the prospect, he acknowledged that it would put his present advisory role on a more formal basis. "I regard myself as having a similar role already." He said he was heavily involved in advising the government on farming and food.

Elsewhere at the show, following a successful launch of West Country lamb earlier this year, which saw a year-on-year sales hike of 20%, Randall Parker

Foods used the event as the springboard for its launch of Cotswold lamb.

Production of the traditionally produced lamb went on sale in Sainsbury's stores on Wednesday this week and has involved a close working relationship between the producers, processor and the retailer.

Speaking at the launch, Kendall said he wanted to see similar initiatives - with more availa-bility of English lamb throughout the season - become mainstream. "The farming industry is up to the challenge of helping it to happen" he said.

Also speaking at the launch, Curry said the initiative deserved to succeed, as it encouraged trust between all parties. The increasing need for retai-lers to justify their environmental impact was also a good opportunity to build stronger supply chains, he said.

It was only possible to understand what carbon footprint was being generated by having strong links across the supply chain, he added, noting that the Cotswold lamb initiative was a good model of what should take place.

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