Lifetime assurance change divides opinion

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Farmers are divided over proposed changes to the Red Tractor food assurance scheme which some fear could lead to members dropping out.

Red Tractor is considering making it necessary for animals to have spent their entire lives on a Red Tractor farm, rather than for just 90 days, as it is convinced that this is what shoppers have come to expect. While some farmers agree, others warn it could further reduce national herd numbers.

Around 70 people attended a recent meeting at Skipton Livestock Market to discuss proposed changes to the scheme, following a similar event in Devon.

Afterwards, David Thomlinson, chairman of the National Beef Association, said: “I believe the Red Tractor is the vehicle that is currently best-placed to provide the assurance the red meat industry needs. However, at this point only 50 per cent of beef producers are farm assured. Obviously, the ultimate goal would be for beef to be lifetime assured, not just 90 days, but it does worry me greatly that if we push too hard now, more farmers will drop out of the scheme.

“This will affect the number of animals in the national beef suckler herd, and we cannot afford for this to drop any lower.”

But David Clarke, chief executive officer of Red Tractor, told Country Week: “When we label meat as farm assured we know that consumers assume that it means for the whole of life. They are disappointed when they find it is not the case.

“Farm assurance is extremely valuable to the industry – only last week The Grocer published its own survey showing that 57 per cent of shoppers were likely to be influenced positively by Red Tractor when they shopped, more than any other food logo - including Fairtrade - in the survey. This change to one detail of the scheme will maintain that credibility.”

Mr Clarke added that any such change would be introduced with a “light touch and sensitively” and there should be no reason for anyone to drop out of the scheme.

“There have been suggestions that farmers will have to make large investments to meet the scheme standards but these are just scaremongering. The consultation proposes that we start with a Cattle Rearing Register which will provide a very simple system to ensure that farmers can join in large numbers and very quickly.”

A number of supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, do not use the Red Tractor as a sign of assurance and one farmer, John Geldard of Cumbria, believes this is a major challenge that the scheme’s leaders should be addressing.

To this, Mr Clarke said: “Both of these retailers are strong supporters of Red Tractor Farm assurance. Despite the fact that sadly neither use the Red Tractor logo on their packs they both ask their farm suppliers to meet Red Tractor standards. Of course if we do not move to whole life assurance of beef the worry is that individual retailers might develop their own approaches, which could well mean even more inspections.”

The National Beef Association added that it was also concerned that there are currently no plans to extend the scheme for sheep farmers.