31 May 2002

Industry needs sort-out on assurance muddles

By John Burns

South-west correspondent

PRESSURE to enhance farm assurance schemes must be resisted until it is shown they are deliverable and will not make the sector uncompetitive, said speakers addressing Bristol Universitys Langford Food Industry Conference.

But other speakers at the conference – Progress towards a new livestock industry: developments in farm assurance – had plenty of ideas on what should be added.

Jeff Wood, head of food animal science Bristol University believed meat quality should be included in farm assurance standards for livestock.

"Product quality is not included in at present, but probably will be in future." But first, research to find simple, low-cost ways of assessing food safety, animal welfare and product quality are needed.

David Clarke, chief executive of Assured Food Standards said suggestions for new requirements were made almost daily. "But we need to think carefully. Schemes cost money and its the producer who pays for them. Any extensions to AFS must be justified on a cost-benefit basis, not on a nice-to-have-it basis."

He added that AFS was not a premium scheme. Even so, it could go beyond what was required by legislation. For example, four years ago Assured Chicken Production (ACP) introduced Salmonella vaccination, a move which resulted in a significant reduction in human food poisoning. "But nobody notices, some even continue to claim food poisoning is increasing, when it isnt."

However, such benefits could only be delivered if the means were available, said ACP chairman Sir Colin Spedding. The next problem in meat poultry was Campylobacter, but there was no vaccine available.

He accepted that farm assurance schemes should aim to improve standards. "But it is important that change should be well-informed and brought about by an independent body.

"Our business is to bring along the whole industry. To do that we have to progress at an acceptable rate. We aim to assure the public, but not to pander to consumer whims."

If higher welfare standards made UK chicken uncompetitive, imports from countries with lower standards would increase. The best way to compete was to force up global welfare standards through consumer and retailer power. ACP had recently registered a Dutch producer. He had changed his production practices to conform to ACP standards. "Thats the way to get a level playing field," said Sir Colin.

Effective assurance on food safety would also demand greater integration of the meat supply chain, suggested Alison Small, a Bristol University PhD student. Visual inspection pre- and post-mortem were useless for detecting diseases such as salmonella and campylobacter.

Information from herd or flock health surveillance schemes must be available to the abattoir and information from abattoirs returned to producers.

"The challenges to implementing such an integrated system include the need for the industry to admit a problem of hidden dangers in meat exists," she said.

Difficulty of delivering the animal welfare aims of farm assurance schemes was highlighted by David Main of Bristol University in a study on the effectiveness of Freedom Food dairy cow welfare standards. It found lameness and discomfort aspects of welfare were no better on the 28 Freedom Food farms than on the 25 non-Freedom Food farms studied.

The best approach, he said, would be to require a herd health plan which included prevention policies, regular recording and reviews of progress.

While food safety and animal welfare were likely to remain key objectives of assurance schemes, there should be a minimum requirement to comply with environmental legislation, said Richard Baines, Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.

Following government-funded research, Dr Baines and colleagues proposed a common environmental module for inclusion in farm assurance schemes. This should cover management plans for water, nutrients, farm waste, pesticides, medicines and chemicals, biodiversity and countryside, he said. &#42

ASSURANCEPROPOSALS

&#8226 More disease surveillance.

&#8226 Meat quality.

&#8226 Environmental factors.