East Anglian woman leads battle to curb supermarkets

Christine Tacon

Christine Tacon - Credit: submitted

Groceries code adjudicator does not sound like the most glamorous position. Yet the person who will fill it, Christine Tacon, will wield power that can cow the mightiest businesses in Britain.

Calls for the adjudicator’s office to be set up soared after farmers and their representatives complained big retailers, like supermarkets, were abusing the might of their market position to impose unfair conditions and prices on them.

With agriculture forming such a crucial part of East Anglia’s economy, it seems natural that a woman from this region should take up the job of ensuring farmers get a fair deal.

Ms Tacon, who is originally from Hethersett in Norfolk and whose brother still farms at Rollesby near Yarmouth, was appointed as the first groceries code adjudicator yesterday with the role to come into full force in the spring.

She will have the power to arbitrate disputes between supermarkets and their direct suppliers.

She can also launch investigations into suspected breaches of the code of practice that now regulates how business should be done between farmers and retailers.

If she finds evidence of a supermarket breaching the code, she could require the firm to publish details of its misdemeanour in national newspapers. In the most extreme cases she can also order them to pay fines.

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She said: “The arbitration is where you have a supplier coming to us and saying ‘a particular retailer has breached the code, I have appealed to them but they are not listening to me’.

“Then the arbitration can come in; where someone is prepared to stand up and say something not right is happening here.”

But the more controversial part of the adjudicator is its investigative power, and its potential to levy fines for breaches of the code.

The power to impose penalty fines was not originally included when the concept of the adjudicator was first conceived in draft legislation in May last year.

But after uproar from farmers and farming groups, the government backed down and gave the adjudicator what the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) calls “teeth”.

Ms Tacon said: “It is going to have to be incredibly serious for it to get to fining, for example an investigation across a broad number of retailers – I don’t think it will get to that often, but it’s brilliant to have the threat.

“There was a huge amount of representation that we should have it; this is a democracy and there was pressure for it to happen and we got it.”

Among complaints farmers have made in the past are that supermarkets change the terms of agreements after they have been struck in a bid to drive down prices they pay.

Often it could be where a supermarket has organised a promotion and then over-ordered produce or where they try and pass the cost of the promotion on to the producer.

NFU head of food and farming Phil Hudson said: “This is an important step forward and will reassure farmers that progress continues to be made to introduce an adjudicator that will have the necessary ‘teeth’ to curb the abuses of power that can undermine farmers and the supply chain.”

Competition minister Jo Swinson pointed out that the adjudicator would focus on the activity of the ten biggest retailers in the UK with a joint annual turnover of £1bn.

She said: “This is an incredibly important position in the retail groceries sector making sure that large supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly and lawfully.

“Ms Tacon has a wide range of experience in the food, retail and farming industry and her appointment is a real milestone. Her knowledge of the sector will be of huge benefit.”

Ms Tacon is a chartered engineer with 12 years’ experience in the sale and marketing of consumer goods such as Mars, Anchor and Vodafone and she ran the Co-operative Group’s farming business, the largest in the UK, for 11 years until 2012.

She is also a non executive director of Anglia Farmers, a Norfolk and Suffolk based cooperative.

Ms Tacon went to great lengths to point out that the new adjudicator would be able to launch investigations on the back of information supplied anonymously; where a producer felt they might be penalised by retailers for complaining.

But she admitted that under laws as they stand the adjudicator would not be able to get involved in cases of a dispute between a supplier and a food producer; in which a retailer was not involved.

She said: “You need to start at the top and when we have cleaned that up if there’s evidence that the role needs to be extended further we can get to it.”