Problems in the EU dairy sector have led the Commission to resort to the tired old policy instruments of intervention buying of skimmed milk powder and export subsidies. To be fair to the Commission, they have had to resist a lot of political pressure for even more intervention, including backing off the planned phasing out of quotas which have ossified the EU dairy sector and made it less internationally competitive.
However, there are a few signs of an improvement in prices. In the UK the NFU believes the corner has been turned for dairy farmers supplying the liquid market after Robert Wiseman Dairies announced that it was raising its price by 0.3p a litre. This increase follows a period of better returns from the cream market and will take the standard litre price for about 900 direct suppliers to 24.3p before seasonality deductions.
Prospects for milk used in manufacturing are less good. Skimmed milk powder continues to flow into intervention stores throughout Europe. While President Obama enjoyed one of the best publicised beers in history, the USA continues to distort the world market with subsidised exports.
Prices on global commodity markets are still under pressure. Butter is quoted at about £1160/t, while skimmed milk powder has slipped back recently to £1227-£1288/t. EU prices are somewhat better and the butter price has climbed above the intervention level. But significant volumes of skimmed milk powder are still being sold into intervention at about £1450/t. These stocks will eventually have to be sold into the market with an inevitable depressing effect.
What is evident is that supermarkets have been creaming off profits. According to a new market situation report from the Commission, 'the pronounced fall in the prices of milk and dairy commodities since the end of 2007 has only triggered a slight decline in consumer prices for dairy products.'
Since the end of 2007, Commission figures show that the wholesale butter price has dropped by 39 per cent, skimmed milk powder by 49 per cent, cheese by 18 per cent and milk by 31 per cent. Yet the price consumers pay in the shops for dairy products has dropped by just 2 per cent.
The Commission's conclusion is that 'the EU dairy supply chain does not function efficiently.' The market power of supermarkets, particularly in Britain, but increasingly in other member states, is considerable.
Competition policy authorities seem reluctant to act. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to get hard evidence of exploitation of market power as suppliers feel they are vulnerable, even with guarantees of confidentiality.
However, there is also a broader political context as supermarkets help the less well off by holding down food prices. Given the importance to New Labour of working people and their families, it is not surprising that they are unwilling to back strong action, but I would not expect Dave Cameron to take a very different line when he is in charge.
Meanwhile, the Commission has proposed extending intervention purchasing for 13 months. Even more worrying, it has suggested allowing state aids of up to €15,000 per dairy farmers. This will do nothing to solve the industry's structural challenges.