28 March 2000
Retailers turn to assured produce

By Vicky Houchin

VEGETABLE producers who refuse to join quality assurance schemes could soon be left without a market, supermarkets have warned.

But many growers are disappointed that the advantages of joining such initiatives are not being promoted by the big retailers to consumers.

The Assured Produce Scheme (APS) has signed up over 3500 members and all the supermarkets since it was launched in 1997 to boost confidence in food.

The countrys big chains now believe that producers will shortly have no buyers unless the fresh farm produce they grow is quality assured.

Asda acknowledges that membership of assurance schemes is not mandatory. But it does encourage its farmers to join up, said a company spokeswoman.

“We would still take from someone if they were not a member, although we would want proof that produce was grown to the same standards.”

Marks and Spencer operates to its own code of practice, which covers practices such as pesticide use, through to packing.

Membership of APS is not enforced, but the company would raise questions if farmers refused to join, said Emmett Lunny, M&S technical officer.

Mr Lunny believes the big advantage of APS is its independent verification, and says the company is now looking to extend it abroad.

He added: “Its important because our brand is vital to our consumers trust. They want safe and legal food and this is one way of guaranteeing it.”

The APS, which predominantly covers fruit and vegetables, costs each grower between 175 and 275 each year, depending on the quantity of produce grown.

However, many producers who sell to the supermarkets are reluctant to comment on their contracts for fear of offending the big buyers.

One grower, who asked not to be named, said: “Its not a headache, just part of farming and good practice. Its a level of insurance we need to embrace.”

Other farmers contacted by Farmers Weekly voiced disappointment that membership of assurance schemes was not promoted through in-store advertising.

Sainsburys has a policy that all its growers must be APS members, and is now examining the possibility of telling shoppers that its fresh produce is farm assured.

David Shepherd, a senior vegetable buyer with the company, said: “Its something we have been looking at and would like to implement as long as its not confusing to the customer.

“One of our customers top priorities is quality. They expect food that is safe to eat and we must ensure the highest standards are in place.”

Waitrose requires all fresh-produce suppliers to join APS, which is independently audited every three years by Checkmate International.

Like Sainsburys, the company is also extending its assurance requirements to include overseas suppliers who are members of European assurance schemes.

Safeway currently demands that all its growers are the process of pursuing membership to APS.

Tesco has its own scheme, which it claims meets the same standards and provides customers with top quality food.

But whether its a supermarkets own assurance policy or the APS, the advice from the big retailers is to embrace the schemes.

Its not so much a case of getting a premium for produce, but rather one of guaranteeing a market, they warned.