19 February 2000

Assured a thriving market

Two-and-a-half years ago Assured Produce for the field vegetable sector was born. Tom Allen-Stevens charts its progress

YEAR-ROUND supply and global sourcing. That was the fresh produce objective for the eighties. In the nineties quality and taste came under scrutiny. This decade? Traceability and food safety. But do we have the right framework to deliver these goals in the UK?

Its been the aim of the Assured Produce Scheme (APS) to ensure UK growers are on the right track. The scheme now has over 3,590 growers, representing 65% of the national crop of fruits, salads and vegetables. Scheme manager Adrian Wallbridge has been encouraged by the reaction of members: "Growers have responded positively to the consumers demand for safe food, which has successfully filtered through the production chain to the grower in the field."

But behind the smiles and reassurances, the first two-and-a-half years of the scheme have been anything but smooth. Most criticism has come from member growers themselves. Although the increase in paperwork was anticipated by most, many are not happy with just how much more has to be done.

Malcolm McAllister is the head of group business development for CWS Farms. The group has entered 13 different quality assurance schemes on the farm, with the result that many of his managers are now swamped with additional paperwork. "Were very much in favour of assurance; we applaud it, we welcome it, but it needs to move on. We operate in a number of different sectors – milk, beef and lamb as well as cereals and fresh produce – and the overlapping between the schemes means a multiplication of cost and time. At the end of the day the only benefit we receive is a licence to supply the market."

Cutting out the duplication has been the aim of a pilot scheme in Assured Produce to verify potatoes and combinable crops together. Its an obvious step, since both APS and ACCS are run by the same parent company – Checkmate International. Mr Wallbridge reports the pilot has been a success and it is intended that it will be extended to cover other crops such as field vegetables and onions.

But he denies that APS requirements are unnecessarily onerous: "To have full membership you must adhere to standards that are statutory in the UK anyway. COSH&#42 assessments, for example, are a legal requirement: if you dont have them you will suffer the consequences."

He does recognise that some growers may be experiencing difficulties with some of the aspects of the scheme. Over the two-and-a-half years the scheme has been operational he has built up a database of common non-conformances. Using this the scheme administration has been able to focus in on areas where help can be provided or improvements made for the benefit of members.

"Many growers are not keeping records of their crop-walking and so do not have a record of why the pesticide was applied. All thats needed is a diary in your top pocket that you take with you whenever youre inspecting your crop. If you see an aphid infestation, jot it down – its evidence of the need for pesticide use."

Another area of non-conformance is grandfather rights. Mr Wallbridge is keen to remind growers who are eligible that they still need to be able to show they are competent. "The best way to demonstrate this is through NPTC training," he adds.

Despite the efforts made by growers to become assured and comply to the standards that have been set down, there is growing frustration that there is no consumer recognition for what has been done on farm. The view of many in the industry is that UK produce is the best and the safest in the world, but the message is not getting across to the consumer and Assured Produce has done nothing to help promote this message.

Certification

Addressing such concerns is high on the agenda, Mr Wallbridge reports. "Were working towards using the logo on the product at the retail level. The first step will be product certification by an independent body and we are in the process of putting this in place. It is something we want to achieve with the supermarkets, who are represented on the schemes board of directors anyway."

But Mr McAllister believes much of the reluctance to take these steps may be down to the supermarkets themselves. He conducted a survey of the major supermarkets contacts with their customers to find out how much information consumers are given by supermarkets about farm assurance. "The answers the supermarkets gave show that at a front level, they are doing little to support farm assurance and are not making any efforts to keep the consumer well informed," states Mr McAllister.

He is not surprised by this, however: "Theres no reason for a supermarket to sell quality assurance at a farm level at the moment. They do not have a vested interest in doing so until all the produce they supply, including imports, is up to standard."

Such a move may be close, however. In November the Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group (EUREP), a body of the major European supermarkets, launched its framework for Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) – a template for all European fresh produce schemes. It includes guidance on which scheme standards are "musts" (usually legal requirements) and which are "shoulds" (largely environmental and worker safety).

It is unlikely to provide a level playing field because of the current difference in statutory requirements between member states of the EU. But Mr Wallbridge points out that the initiative is good news for UK growers. "Its almost an exact copy of Assured Produce and was based on our standards. No other member state has a national scheme that fully complies. The fact that were complying already makes us more competitive. It naturally puts us ahead of the field, which is great news."

But getting a positive message to the consumer is not going to be so easy. One of APS strengths is the legal benchmark it sets. It is no secret that this is not much of a selling point for supermarkets who are demanding their own "bolt-on" additions to the scheme. "The fresh produce market is highly competitive and each supermarket is looking for the competitive advantage. APS is the core foundation supplying 80-90% of what they want – its up to the individual supply contract what additional standards are required," says Mr Wallbridge.

So the NFU has taken on the role of promoting farm assurance to the public, by launching a new kite mark logo. The logo will replace all of the various farm assurance and British produce logos that currently adorn food and confuse consumers. To qualify for the logo, the product must have been produced under a recognised British farm assurance scheme.

Helen Lo, head of food and marketing at NFU, is co-ordinating the initiative: "Every supermarket plasters the Union Jack everywhere, but if that had worked, the farming industry would not be in such a sorry state. This initiative will give consumers one logo that represents UK farm assurance and will stand for traceability and food safety. It will go hand in hand with a promotion campaign aimed at getting the message across to the consumer. The nearest you could compare it to is organics."

Three major supermarkets are looking at draft logo designs and are said to be very keen for the initiative to be implemented. The launch is due to take place in April.