Plans by Red Tractor to introduce unannounced inspections in the UK dairy and poultry sectors this spring have met with strong opposition in Northern Ireland.
The quality assurance scheme started rolling out its new “risk-based” inspection regime in the pig sector last November.
Farmers who are regularly falling short of Red Tractor standards now face more frequent and, in some cases, unannounced on-farm inspections.
The new protocols are due to be extended to the dairy and poultry sectors from 1 April, with the cost of an unannounced inspection charged to the farmer.
But farmers in Northern Ireland are unhappy with the changes, fearing they will be unfairly penalised.
It has been estimated by Red Tractor that about 10% of dairy farmers in Northern Ireland will be subject to unannounced inspections, compared with 5% for the rest of the UK.
There is also concern that, as dairy farmers in Northern Ireland are typically smaller than in GB – often being one-man enterprises with alternative part-time jobs – there will be instances where inspectors turn up and there will be nobody on the farm.
Questions have also been raised about the consistency of inspectors in different parts of the UK.
“It is vital Red Tractor understands our concerns,” said Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) deputy president, Victor Chestnutt.
“Uniformity across the UK regions when it comes to the stringency of Red Tractor inspections is crucial.
“Currently, there is an unjust view that NI dairy farms struggle to meet the same standards as farms in GB. This is simply not true.”
Mr Chesnutt said farmers largely supported the concept of a farm quality assurance scheme, “but it must work for all parties”.
But Red Tractor chief executive Jim Moseley insisted that unannounced inspections were necessary, to strengthen the assessment regime and enhance consumers trust in the logo.
“The UFU has had input in this process and raised awareness of the challenges associated with the new approach,” said Mr Moseley.
“We have listened to those concerns from both the UFU and first-hand from our members at meetings in Northern Ireland over the past few months.
“This is a new regime and we will be keeping a close eye on its rollout and addressing any issues if they arise.”