Retail probe buys time

The meat industry will have to wait until next month to find out whether the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) will refer the grocery sector to the Competition Commission.

The OFT has had to revise its original April deadline because of the large number of responses it has received into its enquiry into alleged unfair supply practices by supermarket chains.

An OFT statement said: "Following a month-long consultation on its proposed decision to refer grocery supply by retailers in the UK to the Commission, which ended on April 6, the OFT is now considering further representations."

The OFT revealed in March that it "was minded" to recommend that the entire grocery sector be investigated by the Commission and confirmed that every grocery retailer could be involved - not just the big four supermarket chains.

Independent retail chains - many of whom claim that multiple buying power has led to a difference in prices offered to supermarkets compared with wholesalers and buying groups - welcomed the announcement.

A number of leading industry associations and companies have submitted representations to the OFT including the National Farmers' Union and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

An FSB spokesman said it was significant that the OFT had received so many responses. "There's a real ground swell of support for them to do something to try and protect the independent sector," he said. "More people are coming to realise what it could mean if the independent sector was completely wiped out. We hope the Commission won't shy away from looking at the issue properly and will come up with some solutions."

The National Federation of Meat & Food Traders said it hoped the delay was a positive move. Technical manager Richard Stevenson said: "We've noticed a lot of support in the industry for an investigation into the sector - the multiples have had it their own way for far too long."

The last investigation into the grocery sector was launched in 1999 and only resulted in a voluntary code of practice. But although many suppliers still complain that the major supermarkets have too much power, no formal complaints have been lodged, until now.

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