Outcry at Countryfile food claims

BBC rural affairs programme Countryfile is in the spotlight after highlighting the standards of different food labelling schemes.

NFU vice president Adam Quinney said the contents of the latest Countryfile episode would be discussed at a meeting of union leaders on Monday (5 March).

Broadcast on Sunday (4 March), the programme pointed out differences between three food labels: the Red Tractor, Freedom Food and the Soil Association.

For many consumers, how food was produced had become just important as quality or even price, Countryfile presenter John Craven had told viewers.

But labels were confusing, he added.

Schemes such as the Red Tractor logo met legal requirements on issues such as livestock transportation. But logos such as Freedom Foods and the Soil Association went further.

“The Red Tractor scheme isn’t just about animal welfare – it stands for better safety and environmental protection,” acknowledged Mr Craven.

“Products stamped with the logo are likely to cost less than the others. But the scheme has come under criticism for having lower standards, than say, Freedom Food.”

Viewers were told that higher standards required by Freedom Food included more space and enriched living areas for farm animals.

Other schemes went further still, said Mr Craven.

The Soil Association scheme, for example, insisted that “cattle get out into the field and eat some grass,” he explained.

When it came to pig production, farrowing crates were banned by the Soil Association and in the process of being phased out by Freedom Foods.

But the same crates were still allowed by the Red Tractor scheme, it added.

The programme also claimed that the Soil Association and Freedom Foods both insisted on straw bedding, but told viewers there was no such provision under the Red Tractor scheme.

Farmers turned to the social media website Twitter to vent their frustration at the programme.

Kent farmer Charles Tassell told the Red Tractor scheme: “You are taking a hammering on Twitter over Countryfile. Didn’t you know about it in advance, or don’t you work on Sundays?”

NFU vice president Adam Quinney replied, saying the contents of the programme would be on the agenda at the union’s HQ on Monday.

Dairy farmer Justin Birch asked: “Shouldn’t the point be that Britain has the highest welfare standards promoted by all three bodies? It is wrong to run down Red Tractor.”

Solicitor and farmer’s daughter Lorraine Robinson tweeted: “Extremely disappointed in BBC Countryfile this evening – the programme has completely deserted its roots.”

Meanwhile, Christine Tacon, former managing director of the Co-operative Farms, said: “Unfortunately, Countryfile has over 6 million viewers so we can’t ignore what they say.”

Ms Tacon, who chairs the BBC Rural Affairs Advisory Committee, said she would take up the matter with the broadcasting corporation.

Countryfile was the most watched factual programme on television, said Ms Tacon. The Red Tractor was portrayed as meeting legal minimum but there was no comparison to the rest of the European Union.

Assured Food Standards, which oversees the Red Tractor logo, issued a statement on the Red Tractor website following the Countryfile broadcast.

Assured Food Standards said the Red Tractor scheme included “a number of elements that go above the minimum legal requirements”.

The logo made a measurable difference to ensuring legal requirements were followed. Standards would be significantly lower without the Red Tractor scheme, it added.

“There is no right or wrong choice,” said the statement.

“Shoppers have different preferences and different budgets,” it added.

“The role of Red Tractor is to ensure that they can get food produced to good standards of safety and welfare at a price most shoppers can afford.”

Red Tractor products were produced and processed to strict standards, which covered a wide range of topics including food safety and traceability, care for the environment and animal welfare.

“The Red Tractor logo provides consumers with peace of mind that the products they’re buying have been inspected to good standards,” the statement said.

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