Feature: Quality promise

Arabella Mileham finds that increasing interest in quality assurance is pushing organisers to refine and enhance their schemes, but that this throws up some unavoidable challenges

The long shadow of food fraud has fallen heavily over the meat industry in the past few years and consumer confidence was severely dented. But in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, the industry and retailers have renewed efforts to ensure greater traceability and assurances along the supply chain. In particular, the scandal has brought the benefits of strong assurance schemes and traceability sharply into focus and added impetus to ensure traceability and the correct use of assurance logos on-pack, in line with consumer demand.

With retailers and suppliers placing strict quality assurance schemes, and the procedures underpinning them, on an even more important footing than ever before, what benefits do these schemes bring the companies involved and wider industry? How are they evolving to meet the changing landscape and boost their credentials and visibility?

Jonathan Whitehead, of certification body Scottish Food Quality Certification (SFQC), says the schemes give buyers reassurance that they are getting something independently inspected and certified to specific standards. He also notes a tightening of traceability over the past 12-18 months. “We’re seeing a lot more scrutiny by processors and retailers as to the origin and assurance status of the stock they’re buying,” he says. “Processors are asking more questions about the animals arriving at their abattoirs – is it demonstrable that the animals are life-assured?”

The reason, he points out, is the increasing interest from retailers and the recognition that quality assurance has a major role to play in the integrity of the supply chain. “A lot of the assurance schemes tend to be ‘pull up’ not ‘push down’ as people join, because the person buying their product from them demands it or will pay a premium for it,” he notes.

A case in point is the new assurance scheme for park venison, launched in September, which came off the back of greater demand for venison in the multiple retailers. “In the past, venison was predominantly sold through small butchers, restaurants and hotels, and it was likely to have been provided by a local supplier, which was considered fine. But having a food product that doesn’t have an independent assessed quality assurance chain behind it is becoming far less acceptable,” he says. Supermarkets are increasingly looking to ensure product meets certain standards, particularly if the product is destined for their premium own-label ranges, he adds. “The suppliers felt it gave them more of a guarantee of quality when talking to retailers.”

The schemes are also determined to build on the momentum gained last year and have rolled out new enhancements. The Red Tractor Assurance scheme, the largest in the UK, implemented a new suite of farm standards in October, with greater focus on food safety and livestock welfare, which it said marked a substantial upgrade. ‘Red Tractor Version 4’ has improved the recording of the use of antibiotics for veterinary treatment, and upgraded biosecurity on poultry farms, it says, as well as making its standards easier for its members to understand and therefore more user-friendly. It has added new dimensions of oversight to boost the robustness of the scheme’s assessment, including online training for assessors, monitoring of the inspection data to assess certification bodies against key performance indicators and the addition of ‘super-auditor’ back-up checks on top of its routine assessment.

Similar moves were undertaken by Quality Meat Scotland, with the addition of a number of ‘common sense’ recommendations to improve herd/flock health planning and the reissue of a more user-friendly, practical document for scheme members. Suzanne Woodman, QMS brands integrity manager, says the scheme needs to keep pace with technology and other changes in our industry, but also has to be practical and workable at a grassroots level.

Eblex’s quality schemes marketing manager Laura Ryan notes there is always concern when raising the standards of a scheme, that members of the industry need to come with it. “We need to [keep] tweaking to make sure we are up to date with the science and pushing the industry and supporting them as hard as we can,” she says. This also involves looking at different quality schemes from around the world, to understand how these could benefit both consumers and the industry in the UK.  

One of the biggest challenges facing assurance schemes, however, lies in consumer recognition and understanding. A YouGov SixthSense meat and poultry survey (13-16 February 2014) showed that understanding of the terminology, labelling and source of meat lagged behind shoppers’ familiarity with the terms, and some in the industry agree this is a problem.

“Consumers have little knowledge about what all the schemes mean,” Whitehead says. “They will recognise Red Tractor or a QM logo, but I suspect that in terms of what each scheme involves, their understanding is somewhat limited.  Market research suggests they recognise the sign of quality and good management on farm, but little more detail than that.” There is scope to educate the public more he says, and on this, QMS, Eblex, Freedom Foods and Red Tractor schemes agree.

Freedom Foods is set to boost its visibility this year with a rebrand of its consumer-facing marketing as RSPCA Assured. The new name and logo is likely to increase the scheme’s cut-through, Freedom Foods marketing controller David Halliday says, as the charity has “almost universal” recognition. “One of the challenges for Freedom Foods was that the logo lacked cut-through when it came to the product on-shelf, but moving the RSPCA name onto it will inevitably give us more recognition among consumers and more take-up of the product,” he says.  

Red Tractor CEO David Clarke argues that overall progress is being made on consumer understanding. “We’re seeing positive creep forward on consumers’ understanding year-on-year, but in many ways we depend on our partners and what they do with our logo,” he says, pointing to KFC’s use of the RT logo on big-scale advertising.

He insists that rather than competing against each other, the schemes are complementary and offer consumers choice. “We’re not all working in splendid isolation; each of the schemes has a purpose and a role and we work together to avoid duplication. I think the whole system is the better for it,” he says. “For example, we underpin Freedom Foods - we’re not competing with each other, we’re actually quite joined up, and most of the criteria in the Eblex mark are from Red Tractor. But we would like to see a proper understanding of how things join up.”  

“The logo isn’t a just a consumer tool,” he points out, “but a tool to control integrity in the supply chain.”

However, Clarke acknowledges that retailers are keen to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “The discounters have been making a quality statement on their products, and Red Tractor has been a big part of that. It has helped them, but was probably a factor in Sainsbury’s decision to remove the logo from packs,” he admits. “It’s disappointing, but I do recognise it is difficult – our mission is to run a single national scheme, but to do that in a market that wants to differentiate itself is a challenge.”

Key schemes

Red Tractor says it adds important meat-specific details to the framework of BRC Global Standards and describes itself as the “farm standard that others stand on the shoulders of”. Managed by Assured Food Standards and covering beef and lamb, pigs, poultry,  meat processing, dairy, fruit and vegetables, it covers production standards on food safety, hygiene, animal welfare and the environment, providing full traceability throughout the supply chain. Suppliers are inspected and certified by an independent professional body and food businesses using the logo must be licensed by Red Tractor Assurance (RTA) and are subject to a comprehensive inspection programme.

Schemes Red Tractor recognises as equivalent include Farm Assured Welsh Livestock (FAWL), Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (NIFQAS), Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), Soil Association Farm Assured (SAFA) and Quality British Turkey (QBT).

The Eblex Quality Standard Mark for beef and lamb works in tandem with Red Tractor, but offers additional guarantees of eating quality. Animals come from British farm-assured farms and must qualify with criteria that include minimum maturation times and carcase classifications. Founded in 2004, the scheme has around 2,100 retail members, plus processors, manufacturers and foodservice groups. It highlights on-pack where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, differentiating between English animals (St George’s flag) and Scottish and Welsh animals (Union flag).

QMS operates six schemes – cattle and sheep, pork, feeds, haulage, auction market and processors – to ensure full traceability throughout the supply chain. It covers animal welfare and husbandry and is supported and approved by Scotland’s independent animal welfare charity, the Scottish SPCA. The Cattle & Sheep Scheme also underpins the integrity of the Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb brands, which have PGI status. Animals must meet the whole-of-life Scotch eligibility criteria – that is, be born and reared on QMS-assured farms and slaughtered in Scotland by approved processors. Almost 100% of Scottish pig farms, 90% of Scotland’s breeding cattle population and 80% of breeding sheep are covered by the scheme.

Welsh Beef/Lamb (PGI): Animals must be born and reared in Wales, fully traceable and slaughtered and processed in a Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC)-approved abattoir or cutting plant. Control and monitoring throughout the rest of the supply-chain is undertaken by local authority Trading Standards Officers. This ensures that only lamb and beef which meet the specifications are sold to consumers as Welsh.

Freedom Food (RSPCA Assured): Owned and monitored by the RSPCA, the FF farm assurance and food labelling scheme focuses solely on animal welfare, and adheres to higher criteria than Red Tractor and equivalent schemes. Covering indoor and outdoor systems, it sets standards on animals’ diet and water provision, management, handling and environment to ensure these meets the animals’ physical and behavioural needs, healthcare, transport and slaughter. FF is not limited to UK farms and its products make no country-of-origin claims, but many of its UK members are also assured by Red Tractor or equivalent schemes.  

Soil Association: Indication of organic production methods.

BRC Global Standard for Food Safety Issue 7 – a food safety and quality certification program used by over 22,000 certificated suppliers in 123 countries, which includes requirements for product specifications, supplier approval, traceability, and the management of incidents and product recalls. The scheme was updated in January in the light of horsemeat scandal to boost traceability and authenticity in the supply chain, particularly maximising visibility when agents or brokers are used. It also aims to reduce multiple audits.

Room for improvement

Although there has been a shortening of supply chains, Jonathan Troth of auditing and certification body KIWA PAI argues that there is still room for improvement. Many companies are moving away from using wholesalers and trying to buy direct from abattoirs and cutting plants in order to become less reliant on imported meat, he says, but there needs to be more self-regulation of the industry.

“Food enforcement authorities can do so much, but the food industry is a big industry and FSA, EHO and Trading Standards cannot monitor everything. More unannounced and targeted checks would help, as would greater penalties for those who wish to cheat the system,” he says.

One challenge is to move away from the use of traders and agent that can “anonymise the supply chain”. There was a move to do this post horsegate, he says, but there is still room for improvement.

KIWA PAI’s BRC agents and Brokers Standard will bridge the gap between producer and user, he says, allowing traceability and agent confidentiality to remain, as there is independent verification of traders’ supplier approval and traceability systems.

“It is one of the last holes plugged in the system of the supply chain,” he says.

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