27 February 1998

What is quality assurance?

By Sue Rider

UK sheep producers must consider what is meant by traceability and quality assurance and ensure they provide it.

Independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings believes that embracing quality assurance and traceability is the way the industry must go. But in the next 12 months sheep producers must consider what is meant by quality assurance.

In terms of quality, we must think about what we mean, says Ms Stubbings. "Do we mean traceability, quality as it eats, or the welfare of animals?" For supermarkets, quality means predictability and uniformity.

"That is why they like the New Zealand product, and this is what we must go for. We must think about the perception of quality, in terms of how consumers perceive the product."

It is also worrying that the sheep industry has quality assurance schemes with almost no failure rate, she says. "Within any industry there will be a minority who fail to meet acceptable standards. Until we accept that there will be a failure rate, we will not have a credible scheme."

Ms Stubbings urges producers to prepare a health/management plan to demonstrate clearly what they were doing on farm to safeguard welfare. "These are relatively straightforward to do, and most flocks are doing a pretty good job. Much health control is preventative, so if you are prepared to prepare a plan and write it down, you can show you have nothing to hide."

As well as a quality product, the UK sheep industry has much going for it. "We must try and keep our sights up and look forward, despite the low prices. We will see this one through," Ms Stubbings believes.

"The first rule is to avoid being panicked into adopting a system that will be unpractical and uneconomic. The best you can do is to do what you do, and do it as efficiently and effectively as possible."

She is worried about the number of people talking about creep feeding March-born lambs, for example. To do so will add £5-£6 a head to costs and if many producers push lambs on in this way, and put them on to the market in June/July, prices will nose-dive.

"Think hard about what is right for you before panicking into a new system."

She also cautions against unplanned cost cutting. "There is a tendency to think that when lamb prices fall we must cut costs. But it is difficult for the sheep industry to cut costs, especially variables." It would be false economy to forgo disease controls, for example.

But increasing use of grazed grass and home-grown proteins is one way to cut costs effectively. "There is a lot of potential that has not been tapped into in terms of home-grown proteins and grass."n

Lesley Stubbings… We must think about the perception of quality.

SHEEP CHECKLIST

Dos

&#8226 Quality and traceability – use as an opportunity; the industry has nothing to hide.

&#8226 Think about perception of quality. For supermarkets that is predictability and uniformity and that is what we must go for.

&#8226 Make better use of grazed grass and home-grown proteins.

Donts

&#8226 Be tempted into buying cheap, low quality concentrates.

&#8226 Cut back on routine preventative health programmes.

&#8226 Panic into adopting new system.