3 April 1998

Vegetable sector light years ahead of grain

Crop assurance is a national

reality, affecting almost

every part of the industry. In

this special farmers weekly

focus we look at what is

involved, starting with the

fast moving vegetable sector

on this page and attitudes in

the grain trade on the next

Edited by Charles Abel

FIELD-SCALE vegetable producers are light years ahead of arable producers in their attitude to retailers and customers. For them quality assurance is routine, not radical new thinking.

While the cereal assurance scheme seeks to prove itself, the recently launched Assured Produce Scheme is already winning widespread producer support.

Bob Taylor, managing director of Bedfordshire Growers represents 80 producers. His attitude is typical of many. "If the industry hadnt introduced a scheme, I believe the Food Safety Standards Agency would have eventually. We have no choice, we must be able to give consumers total traceability and prove the standards are being met in all stages of production, from seed to plate."

Boston grower Philip Effing-ham agrees. "We must be accountable in the way we conduct our food production operations. Buyers views are very important and we must provide what customers want."

Lincolnshire and Cornwall grower David Piccaver goes further. He believes crop assurance will benefit growers. "Since BSE, questions are being asked about all food production. Ignoring issues about food safety will not make problems go away or improve the credibility of the industry."

Over 40 crops already have protocols. Each has a document of 50 pages plus, detailing the best growing practice and highlighting areas growers should concentrate on to minimise pesticide use and optimise fertiliser treatments.

Growers must adhere to this best practice and keep records to prove it, with independent verification to ensure standards are met.

"Crop assurance is not something being imposed by the supermarkets on unwilling growers," stresses John Foley, head of buying at Waitrose. "We both realise we are trading in a world where the public is concerned and it is only a matter of time until someone is caught out. It is essential our own house is in order."

Bob Hilborn, head of primary agriculture at Sainsbury goes on to address fears of imports without assurance. "We dont trade with countries, we trade with individuals in countries, and that means getting similar crop assurance schemes in place to cover our imports too."

However, horror stories about schemes persist. One grower was told a Range Rover was inappropriate for his size of business. Another was asked for the qualifications of his boiler maintenance man.

Industry-wide agreement

But such problems mainly stemmed from individual supermarket schemes, set up before industry-wide agreement was reached.

Indeed, the need to avoid inappropriate requirements from a range of purchaser schemes was the prompt for the NFU to co-ordinate the whole industry scheme.

"There has been a steady decline in the high street grocers from over 55,000 30 years ago, to less than 20,000 today," comments Chris Wise, crop science adviser at the NFU.

"Now, over 75% of fresh produce is sold to the public by multiple retailers and it would be difficult to become a new supermarket supplier unless you are producing assured crops. It is only a matter of time until the canners, freezers, industrial processors and catering trade insist on the same standards as well," explains Mr Wise, who helped producers and supermarkets work together to produce one scheme.

"It was in growers interests to have an agreed national scheme covering all retail outlets." Indeed, a key achievement of the scheme was the undertaking from supermarkets not to use food safety to gain a marketing advantage.

Even so some growers think assured crops should command a higher price. "But, it is not about creating a premium market," explains Mark Tinsley, chairman of the Assured Produce Company.

"The purpose of crop assurance is to give the consumer confidence in the standards of food production used by the producer. We are not aiming to produce an elite group of growers, but to increase standards and confidence across the board."

The UKs position at the forefront of crop assurance is now providing benefits. The European multiple retailers are setting up the framework for a European scheme based on good practice with the aim of launching this summer.

Despite being produced in conjunction with 28 European multiple retailers, it has been put forward mainly by five UK supermarkets. "It will be a doddle for UK assured growers to conform," comments Mr Wise.

Assured Produce Scheme enthusiast Roger Cope of Manor Farm, Beeston Green, Sandy, Beds, reckons the paperwork is no worse than for IACS – sort it in year one and subsequent years will be no hassle.

VEG ASSURANCE

&#8226 Scheme for all retailers.

&#8226 Allays consumer fears.

&#8226 Back-stop if problems arise.

&#8226 Almost 2000 farms registered.

&#8226 Over 40 protocols already.

&#8226 All field scale veg covered.

&#8226 Scheme launched in January.

&#8226 Being adopted in Europe.

Not all growers are enthusiastic…

Not all growers are enthusiastic about crop assurance. There are criticisms that the additional bureaucracy, increased paperwork and additional costs are unnecessary and do not provide any direct benefit to growers.

There is also a concern among small-scale producers about scheme pricing. The lowest rate paid by the smallest grower is £175/year, whereas the largest producers in the country, producing millions of £s worth of produce, pay a basic fee of just £275.

But the time taken to carry out verification varies little with the area of crop grown, Mr Tinsley points out.

Roger Cope, a 140ha (346-acre) grower from Bedfordshire reckons attitude is more important than size. He specialises in lettuce production and is one of the first growers to have his farm externally verified – independent assessment only began in Jan 1998.

As a working farmer, without full-time office support, he did all the paperwork himself. "Its like IACS – the biggest problem is collectingthe information the first time. Once youve got it done, its relatively easyto keep it going, provided you have the right procedures and systemsin place."