From the shopfloor to the farmgate

His daughter, Zoe, may be familiar to fans of television and the big screen, but Robin Tapper is equally well-known to the food industry. He talks to Raymond Monbiot about moving from retailing to politics

After 30-plus years at the sharp-end of the retail business, Robin Tapper made a shift into the political landscape by joining the National Farmers' Union (NFU) as head of food and farming. During his long and distinguished career, he has spent 17 years with Marks & Spencer and a further 13 years with Sainsbury's before joining up with the NFU four years ago.

Born and brought up in Plymouth, Tapper declined to follow in his policeman father's footsteps,

instead following his passion for geography, which he went on to study at Nottingham University. However, he also had strong interests elsewhere. "I was fascinated by food and wine. As a schoolboy I worked part-time in the local Marks & Spencer store and this opened up the prospects of a career in food retailing or the food industry. So after university, I joined M&S, initially working along the south coast."

He rapidly moved up the ranks at M&S, becoming a department manager at Bromley, a job which tested him, as it was a regular haunt of the company directors who lived nearby. His final store appointment, before a shift into buying, was as

assistant manager of M&S's Walworth Road store in London, an experience, he says, that was not to be missed.

Having moved to head office, his career with M&S took in the bakery, poultry and fish buying departments, but he was not wedded to the retailer. "After 17 years, the opportunity to take a job with Sainsbury's, offering a substantial promotion, was too good to miss. I started as a senior manager of deli, ready meals and salads and I also ran their restaurants for a while."

His previous experience stood him in good stead at Sainsbury's.

"Following the pioneering work successfully achieved in ready meals at M&S, this was familiar territory," he says. "However, the directors thought it was time I should have a real buying challenge and put me in charge of meat, with all its variety and com-plexity, on the basis that if I did a good job, I would move on in two years.

"I don't know how good a job I did but in two years I did move on to wine, which fitted my love of both the sector and geography ideally."

But all good things must come to an end and Tapper began to look for fresh challenges. "It was time to move on from Sainsbury's, he says. "The outlook there was likely to be more turbulent than I wanted for my career, so I left. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself approached by former

suppliers and colleagues, seeking my advice and help.

Striking out on his own, Tapper found the initial experience something of a shock. "For the next two years, I experienced the stark realities of running my own business," he explains. "Working for oneself is a salutary lesson. Until one leaves a big

corporation, one does not realise the level of support it offers. Also, the pleasurable concept that I would be my own boss did not last long when I found myself working for three or four large and demanding clients who wanted quick responses and good service. I was working seven days a week just to satisfy their demands."

However, the new move brought him into contact with the NFU and, when his current post was advertised, Tapper jumped at the chance. "The title was something of a misnomer as it was really food chain relations," he says. "Nonetheless, it is a wonderful organisation to work for and there is an opportunity to try and make a difference for its members at a

difficult time.

"The reform of CAP policy means that farmers have to move quickly from subsidies based on production to making their way in the marketplace. They only have a transition period of eight years to move from one system to the other, which is made all

the more complicated by intense

competition within the retail sector,

where cost pressures are being passed back to food processors and thence

to farmers."

Tapper believes the situation is further exacerbated by the ongoing liberalisation of trade and greater access for imports into the market. "This means the UK has to concentrate on producing food competitively and by adding value," he says. "Let's take beef as an example. We are favoured with good grass, being an island with a temperate climate. What's more, the international market is under-supplied with top quality products such as British beef. But consumers need to be convinced that it is worthwhile paying more for quality when research shows their two top considerations in food purchase are safety and price.

"The UK has done a good job in promoting lamb, identifying it with a natural and congenial environment, but it still has work to do on beef. We can learn from the promotional success of Wales and Scotland, both of which are PGI-registered.

Tapper says that while England is too large to be designated as PGI

as a whole, specific regions should take advantage of the opportunity

to add further differentiation to

their products.

"The expanded use of the Red Tractor [symbol] is a logical progression," he says, "particularly as we have won the battle for it to be depicted sitting on the national flag, linking high production standards with provenance. The rapid growth of the scheme means that it is now used on £5bn worth of UK farm produce. It has hitherto been restricted to primary products but now, where it can be shown that the prime ingredient accounts for at least 65% of the product, it can be used on more complex products, such as meat pies, provided of course it complies with Assured Food Standards."

Tapper says the Red Tractor is equivalent to a kite mark, signifying safety, good welfare practices and crop care. While he acknowledges there is a cost attached, he says it remains the key way for members to differentiate their product in the marketplace.

One area Red Tractor producers should be focusing on is foodservice, he adds. "It will soon account for 40% of consumption and is consolidating from its highly fragmented traditions to a supply chain with similarities to retail. Three large distributors and big chains are now pre-eminent and are being encouraged to concentrate on Red Tractor goods. The challenge remains to communicate this

traceability to consumers who do not see the packaging."

Another key focus for Tapper and his NFU colleagues is ensuring farmers receive their monies under the Single Farm Payment, currently being organised by the Rural Payments Agency - an area of some considerable controversy.

"Here we have a complicated scheme made worse by inadequate systems," says Tapper. "This issue is not just about payments; it is about ensuring that a level playing field is maintained within the EU and that the English farmer [Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems] is not disadvantaged.

"Part of the problem has been

put down to the fact that the

government adopted a very complicated system. This is true, but our system is similar to that used in Germany and Denmark, both of which have paid 98% of the money owed compared to 25-30% so far in the UK.

"Mapping the land is urgent because farmers are now under pressure to put in their 2006 claims," he adds. "There is the danger of a repeat performance next year,"

In his spare time, the father of two, enjoys collecting stamps and is an avid wine buff. All in all, life has been good, he says. "I feel I am in a

privileged position. My long service with blue chip companies has secured my pension and my children are

doing well." His son, Jonathan, is a successful accounts manager in advertising, while his daughter, Zoe, has been enjoying success as an actress in both film and television.

"My work at the NFU is fulfilling and a complete change, yet it maintains my contact with the

industry and people I have worked with for many years."