2 April 1999

ACCS puts customer first…

Food scares put increasing

pressure on farmers to prove

that what they produce is

safe to eat and has been

grown in an acceptable

manner. Although it is all

too often forgotten that

growers, too, are consumers,

failure to react to that

pressure could be foolhardy.

This special focus examines

the latest moves to respond

positively, starting here with

a look at the ACCS. Edited

by Andrew Blake

ANYONE doubting the credibility of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme need look no further than comments by grain buyers, processors and traders in the "Wanted" leaflet issued in Feb by the schemes registrar, says ACCS chairman Jonathan Tipples.

They variously describe ACCS as "a way of enhancing customer confidence throughout the complexities of the food chain", "a means of endorsing that crops purchased have been produced, handled and stored in accordance with good practice" and "an important step in improving material traceability".

Anybody who believes the qualifying criteria for the scheme were made intentionally lax to encourage farmers to join is mistaken, adds Mr Tipples.

"We certainly didnt set out to make it particularly easy. I went to 45 farmer meetings last winter and I believe that if you had suggested it was, you would have been lucky to get out unscathed! People were saying it is anything but easy. For some farms it has been extremely hard. Very few passed the inspection first time with a clean bill of health."

That said about 15,000 farms could be ACCS-registered by this harvest, he estimates.

The ACCS was never intended to match the Assured Produce scheme for fresh production, he stresses. "We have to ask who our customers are. They are the people we sell the grain to. Its like a tin-plate manufacturer selling to washing machine makers. He isnt selling to the housewife.

"Fresh produce is a different ball game. The consumers are the multiple retailers and goods like strawberries go straight from the farm to the supermarket shelf in the same punnet. I do not believe there is a need for the same level of control on cereals as there is for horticultural produce which is much closer to direct markets."

ACCS registration is on-going, Mr Tipples says. "It is not a one-off like passing the driving test. We are re-verifying one-third of those farms which joined in the first year. In time every one will be re-assessed at least once every three years. Its a process of constant monitoring."

By this harvest a new form-based system should be in place to allow grain buyers to alert scheme administrator, UKFQC, to loads containing insects or other contaminants so the source can be checked.

"If necessary the farm could get a visit from one of the ACCS regional managers pretty pronto. We have always reserved the right to turn up unannounced.

"Clearly we are very concerned about credibility. Thats why we are investigating whether we should be covered by the UK Accreditation Service." UKAS is an independent government-recognised monitoring organisation which oversees inspection standards throughout industry.

Shouldnt ACCS registered farms be prepared to lay themselves open to wider inspection to re-assure members of the public? And shouldnt environmental health officers have been entrusted with the work in the first place?

"Clearly the opportunity for closer scrutiny is there for the government when setting up the Food Standards Agency. But the NFU was told in the early ACCS days that if agriculture could be seen to be regulating itself it was less likely to be in the target line for further official action. There is still scope for the FSA to do more if we are seen to be a joke. But farms minister Nick Brown supports assurance and we are clearly not regarded as that."

EHOs were never considered. "They are working to racked-up standards required much further down food chain. And besides I very much doubt whether they would have been able to cope with the workload."

CROPASSURANCE

&#8226 ACCS not for fresh goods.

&#8226 Appropriate standards.

&#8226 Few first time passes.

&#8226 Open to development.

ACCS looks to future

The ACCS manual was written with the future in mind from the outset, says Mr Tipples. "From day one it required all spray operators to have had training. They couldnt rely on so-called "grandfather rights" which we knew were going to go.

"We knew too that genetically modified crops were going to become an issue. So the last manual included the full GM code of practice.

"We shall need to include other things as further legislation comes along. The new groundwater regulations mean the measures to protect watercourses will have to be beefed up and LERAPs will have to be included in the manual which will be reprinted in time for Cereals 99."

It will also include the new Sewage Sludge Matrix agreed between the Institute of Grocery Distribution, the water companies and the NFU. "It shows, for example, that you must not apply untreated sludge to cereals after Christmas."

There will also be fresh advice on rodent baiting and domestic pets. "Cat flaps in grain stores are definitely out. The Salmonella Code of Practice means you cant have any animals crawling about on stored grain."

Further tightening of haulage standards to take account of industry improvements will mean that information on materials which may and may not be carried in grain lorries will be included, as detailed in the new Trade Assurance Scheme for Combinable Crops from UKASTA.

"There will also be a complete list of the National Proficiency Tests Council spraying guides so people can refer to them to see which modules they need."