The UK-based Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has called on the country's supermarket groups to increase their sourcing of local food to 5 per cent of all food lines and 5 per cent of sales by 2005.
The CPRE said that many specialised products such as English cheeses or local apple varieties were not getting the shelf space they deserved in English stores, which instead were filled with the same national or international products.
The CPRE urged supermarkets to set a clear definition of 'local foods' so that customers know that products promoted as such have been grown in the nearby countryside. It also challenged supermarkets to set a limit of 30 miles within which the main ingredient of local food must be grown and processed.
Local foods can bring significant benefits to farmers, to consumers, to local economies and the environment, the CPRE argued in a new report, called 'Down Your Way?'. It cited research from the New Economics Foundation which it said showed that these benefits were greater when local foods were sold through traditional local shops and pioneer businesses such as farmers' markets.
"But if we are to see a significant increase in the market share of local food, as recommended by the Curry Report [the recently published report on the future of British farming], then supermarkets, who currently sell around three-quarters of the food we buy in the UK, must play a bigger part," the CPRE said, adding that wanted to ensure that supermarkets were bringing the greatest possible benefits to local economies.
CPRE's Sophie Spencer said: "Our proposed targets are realistic and will help bring greater benefits for local economies from the sale of local food. Our survey has shown that all are interested in increasing their share of the local food market and some have targets in place already. But further action is needed. Supermarkets need to fundamentally reassess their operations if they are to provide the greatest benefit to farmers and local economies."
The CPRE's report contains new information about the attitudes and policies on local foods among 10 supermarket chains - Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Safeway, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Booths, Iceland, Co-op and Somerfield. The survey found that these had no accepted definition of what a local food is, and for the most part their aspirations for promoting local foods were vague or modest. Booths, a chain which covers only part of England, appeared to be the supermarket group most engaged with local foods, the CPRE said.
Not everyone agreed with the CPRE's assessment, however. One of the chains investigated, Waitrose, said it welcomed the initiative but said that the CPRE had got it wrong when it said that it did not have a local food sourcing policy.
"The food shops of the John Lewis Partnership do indeed have a dedicated resource committed to sourcing local produce. In fact, Waitrose has been working with some of its suppliers for over 30 years, many of whom are well-known within their local area. The supermarket always aims to source products from areas within which it trades," the company said in a statement.
Waitrose spokesperson Christian Cull said that the chain worked closely with small, local and regional producers to offer its customers the best quality food. "We are currently working closely with regional food groups within our trading area to help source the very best local and regional foods. We can confirm, as it says in the CPRE briefing, that we have a local sourcing manager dedicated to local produce. We are therefore surprised to see that the same report suggests that we do not have a local food sourcing policy, and can only assume that a mistake has been made in the reports tables."
Cull added that Waitrose had last year created the Small Producers Awards, and this year confirmed its continuing support of local cheese-makers with renewed investment in the Waitrose British Cheese Festival and the British Cheese Awards, which take place at the end of September. He said that the chain's stores had held an English Apple Festival in October last year to celebrate National Apple Day, and that some products sold at Waitrose are so local they are only available in a handful of shops.
"For example, Cerney goats cheese (supreme champion at the British Cheese Awards 2001), is produced by Marion Connisbee-Smith, a very small Cheese-maker near Cirencester. Her cheese is sold in just five Waitrose branches."