By James Garner
MEAT is in the hot-seat again, after the recent French beef scandal which could have repercussions for British consumer confidence.
But BSE fall-out regulations and assurance schemes means our meat industry is a long way ahead of other countries in terms of traceability and assurance standards, reassures NFUs head of livestock Stephen Rossides.
A similar positive message comes from professor of veterinary public health at Royal Vet College, Mac Johnston. “We have developed more positive surveillance methods in the UK.”
But he warns against too much back-slapping, as economic troubles in the industry could mean cuts in vet investigations at farm level.
“Fewer farm animals may be sent for post mortems and laboratory tests. This has serious implications for the nations animal and public health, as disease patterns, trends and emerging diseases are harder to detect.”
Farm assurance and retailers producer schemes are helping extend traceability in the UK, says Prof Johnston.
Nevertheless, some producers would feel more secure if ABM had tied up the whole meat food chain to protect interests.
It needs to be up and running, says farmers weekly Farmer Focus contributor John Davies, who would like to see a European-wide meat assurance scheme in place.
“All we have had so far from ABM is sound bites. For consumers, this French scandal is horrific news.
“I am a producer and I understand how meat is produced and it horrifies me, so what will consumers think when they know little about how meat is produced?”
ABMs marketing development manager, Clive Dibben, says it is ahead of the game. But that is no reason for complacency.
“We are working very hard to have an integrated assurance chain in place and, hopefully, this is only a few months away.”
He says joining the different parts of the assurance chain – such as the feed, abattoir, transport and farm sectors – is complicated.
“It is difficult because we are not starting with a clean sheet. Assurance in some sectors was well developed and our remit was to work with organisations and not repeat work already done. This takes time.”
Despite the delay of ABMs introduction, the UK is in far better shape than many countries, says Mr Rossides.
“As far as traceability in the food chain is concerned we are much more advanced than other European countries.
“Producers should be reassured by this, but with prices on the floor they remain slightly ambivalent about farm assurance, although I think they accept its rationale despite the cost and hassle of becoming assured.”
But he says the standards are not above best farm practices, so producers should not expect a price premium for selling farm assured stock.
Instead, Mr Rossides says assurance is a way of reassuring customers and supermarkets and ensuring a market to sell to.
“For instance, you can only sell to Sainsburys if farm assured.”
It is surprising then that more cattle and sheep farms have not joined the schemes. Only a quarter of English beef and sheep producers are FABBL members, although they supply about 60-65% of beef to the market and a slightly lower percentage of lamb.
Most stock finishers are now members because of the clear market signals, says FABBL chief executive Phillipa Wiltshire. “We are targeting store producers to get them on board now.”
The pig sector is further ahead: With the amalgamation of FABpigs and the Malton assurance scheme, over 80% of pigmeat produced is now farm assured and most of the chain is linked up and has United Kingdom Accreditation Service approval.
Once assurance is in place the chances of a food scare, such as in France, are reduced, says Mr Dibben.
“There will be less chance of it happening in the first place. But because you cannot predict every problem, if something did go wrong the chances of isolating the source is much improved.”