The battle over the introduction of lifetime assurance for beef under the Red Tractor Scheme has reignited, with farmers in the South West and Northern Ireland claiming their views have been ignored.
Red Tractor Assurance (RTA) has revealed it intends to “cautiously” proceed with plans to allow only animals that have spent their whole life on an assured farm, rather than just 90 days before slaughter, to qualify for the logo.
But the announcement has prompted condemnation from the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), while farmers in the south west of England have also raised serious objections.
What did the consultation show?
Red Tractor Assurance (RTA) said that the results of the consultation showed a “consensus” that the delivery of lifetime assurance for beef is an important objective to protect the integrity of the Red Tractor brand.
The consultation ran through January to March and received just under 200 responses.
These came from trade bodies involved at every stage of the beef supply chain and from some individuals.
RTA asked for an independent review of the responses to give it feedback on whether there was any consensus on the next steps.
This review was carried out by beef production specialist Alan Spedding and the former director of the Arthur Rank Centre Gordon Gatward.
According to a report published on the Red Tractor Assurance website, Dr Gatward and Mr Spedding concluded that more farmers who responded to the consultation were against the proposals than supported them and there were a significant number of objections that could not be ignored.
“This, however, may not be a fair reflection of UK beef producers’ views because those responding are a self-selected sample.
“The point is made by one respondent that a loud minority should not be allowed to overrule the views of a silent majority.”
They concluded that: “On balance, a careful study of the responses suggests that RTA is right to decide on the move to lifetime assurance for beef.
“The current 90-day system devalues the Red Tractor brand and is unfair to the many beef producers whose cattle are already lifetime assured.”
But they added: “However RTA needs to explain this better to the respondents in all sectors who asked for more evidence that lifetime assurance is wanted and effective.”
Their review noted that many farmers had said the Red Tractor logo was seen by consumers not as a quality mark, but simply as a mark of “Britishness”.
“If this is the case, work needs to be done by RTA to explain better, mainly to consumers, but also to everyone in the sector what exactly it ‘assures’.”
There was also a view among farmers that Red Tractor did not offer significantly more than cross-compliance rules and that when retailers’ additional requirements were considered there was no need for RTA.
“Better understanding of this aspect would significantly improve take-up,” they said.
Bill Harper, south-west chairman for the National Beef Association, said there was still deep-rooted opposition to the proposals in his region, with farmers puzzled as to why the move was deemed necessary for cattle but not for sheep.
“[The Red Tractor management] have got to show us they can promote the product before they can expect further support from us.”
Mr Harper said he was sceptical about the whole consultation process and he would be seeking answers.
Red Tractor said the results had been independently analysed, but Mr Harper said he wanted to know exactly what had been shown to the independents (see “What did the consultation show”, right) to check they had seen everything.
According to Red Tractor there were about 200 responses, but Mr Harper said he thought there would have been more than that.
“We’ll be asking for much more information at a board level about what consultation responses were received, how group responses were viewed and whether they disallowed any responses.”
David Clarke, Red Tractor chief executive, said the organisation had asked for an independent review of the responses as it had expected questions to be raised.
He said no response to the consultation had been disallowed and the independent witnesses were given full sight of every single one.
“They looked at every single response, untouched, uncensored and without interference,” he said. “We’ve bent over backwards to be transparent on this.”
But UFU president, Ian Marshall, accused Red Tractor of ignoring the views of the majority of farmers who had taken part in the process.
“This is well documented in Red Tractor’s concluding report, which explains that there are a significant number of objections to their proposals and that there were clearly more farmers against them than supported them.”
Mr Marshall added: “Without the funding that farmers provide to run the scheme, Red Tractor would not be where they are today.
“I find it deeply disappointing that they have chosen to ignore not only the majority of farmers who have taken part in this process but also processors, auctioneers and other industry organisations who see little value in these proposals.”
NFU livestock board chairman Charles Secombe said he was prepared to support the move to lifetime assurance, but that support was dependent on a practical proposal that did not distort the supply chain or increase the administrative burden for farmers.
“The current system of 90-day residency has served the industry well and delivers many benefits for producers and customers.
“We understand that with the right approach and support from the processing, retail and food service sectors lifetime assurance is a goal we should be working towards.
“The board looks forward to working with Red Tractor, members and other interested stakeholders to ensure that should we progress lifetime assurance it is done in a way that benefits beef farmers and secures the industry’s long-term future.”