ALL growers supplying frozen vegetable company Tendafrost have now agreed to undergo environmental scrutiny, via the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) audit.
"This audit is now required by us as a condition of supply," says Graham Hillier, field vegetable auditor with the company, which provides about 50,000t/year of frozen vegetables to all the major retailers.
Although some of the 40 producers and producer groups were "understandably a little reluctant" at first, Mr Hillier says they are now fully committed to the initiative, and support the companys lead. The audit cost is £23.50.
"We have been using quality assurance for many years, but felt that the LEAF audit provided a sound environmental base, on to which other requirements can be bolted," explains Mr Hillier.
One major benefit of the LEAF audit is that it is a whole farm scheme, covering all crops, comments Norfolk grower David Richardson, LEAF director. "There is a real danger that we could see half a dozen assessors on farms, monitoring standards for different products."
However, external assessors do not conduct the LEAF audit; it is a self-assessment scheme. LEAF co-ordinator, Caroline Drummond, does not rule out independent verification of the audit at some future point.
In conducting an audit, the grower fills in a form which goes through all the management processes in detail, with the aim of highlighting weak areas, in particular those with an impact on the environment. Mr Hillier will be monitoring the results of each Tendafrost producers audit.
"For us, the LEAF audit is a selling point to our supermarket and manufacturing customers," he says.
Will more companies follow suit? According to Mr Richardson, interest in the LEAF audit as an environmental quality assessment tool is growing.
"Food and drink retailers and processors such as J Sainsbury, Birds Eye Walls and brewer Shepherd Neame have asked farmers who supply their raw materials to join LEAF and conduct an audit," says Mr Richardson. "Several more major food companies are now having similar discussions with us."
The NFU has put together a number of horticultural crop protocols, worked out in agreement with many major retailers. The organisation is also taking a leading role in the introduction of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme, launched two months ago.
"The LEAF audit is compatible with these other schemes, but its provisions go well beyond these foundations," says Mr Richardson.
One major difference, he suggests, is that the LEAF seal of approval gives food companies the confidence to assure customers that what they sell is "ethically produced". Mr Richardson sees no conflict of interest between the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme and the LEAF initiative.
As a member of the initial steering group of the Assured Combinable Crops scheme, Mr Richardson admits that he would have liked to see its protocols drawn up with more emphasis on the environment.
There may be a way to clinch that special contract. Gilly Johnson finds out how.