4 April 1997

Meat schemes goal to win and hold confidence

Guaranteeing safety is the aim of the Assured British Meat integrated assurance scheme, which hopes to cover 80% of Britains livestock farmers. Shelley Wright reports

SELLING more meat is not the aim of the new Assured British Meat integrated assurance scheme.

Its goal is to restore consumer confidence and, more importantly, retain it, says Terry Lee, ABMs first chief executive.

The scheme, which is being established by the Meat and Livestock Commission, will ultimately be independent. And it aims to provide integrated assurance, with independent monitoring, right through the production chain, from farm to plate, for beef and lamb.

A £1.85m grant has been secured from government, and MLC has also given £1.1m to help get the project off the ground. ABM will be registered as a company later this month, and the appointment of a high-profile chairman should follow soon after.

Mr Lee, MLC export manager, is the driving force behind ABM and will be the first chief executive. But he will stay in the job for just six months, to get ABM established, and then return to the MLC. The need for an integrated assurance scheme was proved last year when, in light of the BSE crisis, market research showed that consumers were concerned about standards at abattoirs, feed mills, and on beef and sheep farms.

But ABM will not be a marketing tool to increase meat sales. Its role will be to win back consumer confidence in British meat, and keep it. "The scheme is not about quality assurance, it is about guaranteeing safety. The scheme will unify the safety standards across the country.

"We do not want Scotland to say its meat is safer than, say, that from Wales, or Tesco to say what it sells is safer than meat on sale in Safeway.

Common standards

"What we need are common standards," says Mr Lee. ABM will provide common safety standards, with individual quality assurance schemes, and brand names or marks, being used to provide marketing advantage.

For the scheme to succeed, Mr Lee believes independence is vital. ABM must be industry-owned and not part of MLC and it will be subject to independent standards and control. To keep costs to a minimum, he says ABM will want to build on existing assurance schemes wherever possible.

Right from the start, the concept of integrated assurance had the full support of the NFU and the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers (representing the slaughtering industry).

And Mr Lee says that within the past two months UKASTA, the trade body representing the main feed firms, has also committed itself to ABM. He points out that one of the fundamental standards the feed firms will have to accept is full ingredient declarations. ABM will have a council of about 20 members representing the constituent parts of the industry.

The council will elect three board members, while three other members will be appointed from outside the agri-food industry, giving a balance between industry expertise and independence.

The standards for each link in the production chain will be drawn up by ABM committees, working with the independent standards authority, UK accreditation services, whose standards are recognised across the EU.

UKAS standards and inspection will mean there is no commercial relationship between the inspectors and those being inspected, which is essential if the scheme is to succeed, says Mr Lee.

He hopes that 80% of Britains 117,000 livestock farmers will join ABM within three years, along with 90% of the firms involved in the rest of the meat production chain. An annual fee of about £75 seems likely for ABM farms, to cover costs, including independent inspection.

Scotland recently announced the establishment of its own integrated assurance scheme. Mr Lee says ABM will not seek to sign up Scottish farmers. Instead there will be mutual recognition between the two schemes.

ABM will provide integrated meat assurance from farm to plate.