21 March 1997

Quality and co-operation are the words

QUALITY assurance and more co-operation between producers and buyers will be essential for the future of the beef industry.

That was the conclusion of a meeting held last week between the RASE and the Institute of Grocery Distribution – of which all supermarkets are members – aimed at identifying how to regain consumer confidence in beef.

According to RASE spokesman Alan Spedding, the main message to emerge from the conference was that the entire industry must work together, and must now be seen to be whiter than white.

"We have got to stop blaming everyone else for the crisis, and work towards regaining the market. Now every time beef is mentioned, consumers think of BSE. We have been reactive up until now – acknowledging that there are problems, then doing something about clearing them up. Now we have to over-deliver – the industry must be seen as being spectacularly clean – and weve got to get it right."

Quality assurance schemes and better traceability were key to regaining consumer confidence, says Mr Spedding. "Although there needs to be more discussion on the topic, traceability from farm to cuts of beef on the supermarket shelf will be essential. Independent auditing of quality assurance schemes is also vital."

A better working relationship between farmers and buyers such as supermarkets would help ensure that quality assurance schemes do not become impractical, he says. "Closer links between the two should help avoid schemes becoming unworkable; if we work as a team rather than standards being imposed from above then theres a better chance they will work."

The Institute of Grocery Distribution is considering setting up a scheme similar to the Strathclyde food project, with beef high on the agenda. "Supermarkets do want to buy British beef; its easier to source and they can ensure it meets their standards. I believe they are willing to work hard to improve the market for British beef."

Supermarket pundits also feel that there are many consumers who have stopped eating beef, but will start again as soon as they are convinced it is safe.

"Buyers feel these consumers just need a push; they need to be given the feeling that they dont need to worry about the safety of beef. Thats why the industry needs to work together towards quality assurance and traceability."

But quality assurance and traceability do add to costs, warns Mr Spedding. "The economics are difficult, particularly at a time when we are over-producing beef. It may be that we have to move towards more extensive systems, with more suckler beef, and that could be tricky with little likelihood of better prices in the long term."

The opening up of free trade within the EU, and pressure to reduce CAP spending mean beef producers face a double whammy of imports which are not subject to restrictions, and lower subsidy payments.

"The industry is going to be squeezed, and there is pain on the way for all producers. People should be prepared to make difficult decisions about their farm, and there has to be a willingness to change. But the producers who do survive will be those who are most efficient, and produce what the market wants."


BEEF MARKET NEEDS


&#8226 Producers and buyers closer.

&#8226 Quality assurance and traceability vital.

&#8226 Consumers waiting for assurance.