18 February 2000

Assurance is

costing growers too much

By Amanda Dunn

QUALITY assurance is costing UK farmers far too much, particularly when compared with the requirements placed on overseas producers.

So says a top accountant. But assurance scheme backers insist costs are being cut, efforts are being made to unify schemes and assurance criteria are being applied to most imports.

While acknowledging the need for produce assurance to meet buyer demands in the UK, the cost implications are a real concern for Pamela Gladwin of accountant Deloitte & Touche.

A recent Nuffield scholarship visit to the US, Canada, Poland and France suggested farmers there were not subject to the same consumer demands for quality assurance – and consequently avoided the associated costs.

"While it is important that we know how crops are produced, the cost of meeting standards is being passed back to the farmer, who can no longer sustain this in todays climate," she says.

"In the States there is much more concern over GM crops, making general quality assurance take a back seat. Although Canada has higher quality control than the US, France hasnt gone down the assurance route as yet and Poland remains a long way behind."

But it is not just subscription or set-up charges that concern her. "Once farmers have joined, standards are continually changing and they incur further expense."

NFU cereals adviser Jonathan Pettit admits costs can rise where growers are required to join more than one scheme to ensure the consumer demands of different sectors are met.

The NFU is now trying to reduce the number of visits a farmer has by amalgamating the inspection process, he says. Last year a pilot project covered the Assured Produce Scheme and Assured Combinable Crops Scheme. "While the schemes would remain separate, the verification visit would amalgamate, potentially cutting the cost to the farmer," says Mr Pettit.

Following the success of the pilot scheme a move to single visits to verify farms for both ACCS and APS membership, with a single fee, is likely by late spring/early summer 2000, confirms ACCS chairman Jonathan Tipples.

Costs are now being renegotiated with scheme administrator UK Food Quality Certification. The unified scheme should be significantly cheaper than the two separate ones, says Mr Tipples.

However, a further move towards a single whole farm scheme is not on the cards. "We are keen to avoid a whole farm assurance scheme. If someone qualifies on cereals but has a problem with pigs they could then lose assurance on the overall farm," says Mr Tipples.

"The system we would like to see is modular, with a minimum number of inspections. That is a longer term issue and the general feeling is it may be 4-5 years away."

Tightening standards are not currently an issue, he adds. "In order to come in line with APS the only additional requirement for ACCS members is for a bucket of sand in the chemical store to soak up spilt pesticides. As far as we are concerned, although our manual has been rewritten and rearranged, the standards remain the same."

The scope to contain costs where farms have merged is also being recognised. "We have 8400 members on 12,000 MAFF holdings, so we effectively have one and a half farms per member," he notes.

"Members do need to make us aware of their situations and we will certainly try to help them out," he adds. He is currently looking at subscription costs for Delta Farming, a merger of five Norfolk farmers.

While that will help, Delta Farmings Laurie Ritchie is frustrated by differing standards. "It is right that we should protect the consumer, but what I object to is supplying assured produce when our foreign counterparts are not."

That is a common complaint and one Mr Tipples has sympathy with. "But if you talk to the millers, they immediately point out that the vast proportion of grain they buy is British, and much of the relatively small amounts that are imported cant be produced by the British farmer in the British climate.

"Where I would feel extremely annoyed is if grain was coming in of a similar quality and they then chose to buy cheaper non-assured grain."

CROP ASSURANCE

* Hefty cost burden.

* Not borne outside UK.

* ACCS/APS merge soon.

* Multi-farms, single fee.

* Import concerns persist.

CROPASSURANCE

&#8226 Hefty cost burden.

&#8226 Not borne outside UK.

&#8226 ACCS/APS merge soon.

&#8226 Multi-farms, single fee.

&#8226 Import concerns persist.