Quality Assurance: Only the best will do
Published:  10 March, 2016

Following various scandals in the food sector, consumers are more savvy than ever before about where their meat comes from, so what is the industry doing to regain their trust? Aidan Fortune reports

It is common for the meat industry to fly under the radar when times are good. Nobody cares when meat gets from farm to fork without any hassle and it is only when something goes wrong that the sector is thrust into the spotlight. Unfortunately, the sector has been in the spotlight too many times over the years. It’s at these times that consumers call for increased traceability and transparency in the food chain. But do they actually know what they are looking for and how can the meat industry help them?

According to Michael Freedman, senior shopper insight manager at IGD, quality assurance schemes are now among the top “quality indicators” for shoppers. Speaking recently at a Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) conference, Freedman explained the importance of highlighting quality and how it can fulfil the dual process of instilling confidence and growing sales.

“More than six out of 10 British shoppers (62%) are willing to pay more for higher-quality fresh red meat,” he said. “Two-thirds (66%) of Scottish shoppers say they expect fresh red meat with a quality assurance logo to guarantee that it is meat that they can trust. Seventy-three per cent of Scottish consumers would also agree that a guarantee of higher animal welfare is a reason to pay more for fresh red meat.”He adds: “Eight out of 10 (78%) of all Scots agree that Scotch Beef is a brand they trust. The strength of trust in the brand is also evident in London where seven in 10 of those who buy Scotch Beef in London trust the brand.”

But what exactly is the Scotch Beef brand? QMS operates six quality assurance schemes, which deliver whole chain quality assurance for the industry. To be eligible to carry the brand logos, meat must also come from animals that have been born, reared and slaughtered in Scotland. This ‘whole chain’ approach includes schemes for cattle and sheep farms; pig farms; feed suppliers; hauliers; auction markets and processors. “The schemes provide reassurance to consumers of both provenance and high standards of production, including animal welfare and wellbeing – all of which also play an important part in a quality eating experience,” explains QMS chairman Jim McLaren.

Wales has also seen success with its quality assurance schemes. According to research commissioned by Hybu Cig Cymru - Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) in November 2015, 33% of UK consumers indicated that a quality mark was an important factor influencing their lamb choices, up from 29% in the previous year, while research in January 2016 found 35% of consumers in Wales indicated that a quality mark was an important factor influencing their beef choices, up from 31% 12 months previously.Prys Morgan, HCC head of operations, says: “Awareness of the Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef brands are monitored before and after each campaign to measure the effectiveness of our marketing activity. In the UK, independent evaluation showed that awareness of the brand increased from 40% to 64% in 2015. For the Welsh Lamb brand, quality and home-grown were the highest attributes associated with the brand.”

Wales and Scotland aren’t the only countries to focus on quality. According to Mike Whittemore, AHDB Beef & Lamb’s head of trade marketing, one of the levy board’s toughest challenges is consumer confidence. “The meat industry is under constant pressure and subject to intense scrutiny from many different sources and over a range of issues, including animal welfare, the effect of livestock rearing on the environment, the integrity of quality control systems throughout the supply chain, and the effects on our health of eating red meat. “While AHDB Beef & Lamb has to address all those issues, the most critical challenge for the meat industry is to satisfy consumers on the quality and consistency of their eating experience.”

Whittemore believes that, of the various quality assurance schemes in operation in the meat industry, the AHDB Beef & Lamb Quality Standard Mark (QSM) for beef and lamb is distinguished by the fact that it addresses the key issue of eating quality. Thankfully, the QSM is widely recognised by consumers and has been found to influence their purchasing decisions. A meat and poultry survey found that over a third of respondents said they would be more likely to purchase meat which carried the QSM logo on pack. The survey also found that 50% of consumers knew about the scheme and understood what it represented.

Whittemore advises businesses to display the mark on pack and menus when possible.Even though it’s 12 years old, QSM hasn’t remained static since it was introduced. The standards behind the scheme were upgraded in 2012, specifically to address issues of animal age, maturation periods and carcase classification. Whittemore says: “Such improvements to the scheme are ongoing and a necessary function of ensuring the QSM continues to deliver as consumers become more discerning; AHDB Beef & Lamb’s work has to keep pace with their more demanding levels of expectation.”

It’s not the only scheme to evolve. In Northern Ireland, the Livestock & Meat Commission for Northern Ireland (LMC) has been independently managing the Northern Ireland Beef and Lamb Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (FQAS) for 25 years. LMC industry development manager Colin Smith explains that the most significant change to beef and lamb assurance in Northern Ireland in recent years has been the introduction of the world-leading Food Fortress Scheme in 2014. “The Scheme uses cutting-edge technology and innovative risk assessment practices designed at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University Belfast to strategically sample and test animal feed and therefore minimise the risk of contamination in the supply chain,” he explains. “In addition, the use of the NI Government’s centralised database, Animal Public Health Information System (APHIS), to verify the assurance status of cattle and sheep in Northern Ireland provides us with a traceability system unrivalled across Europe, if not the world.”But what use is a scheme if consumers don’t recognise it? Enter Red Tractor.

Around 80% of UK farmed produce comes from farms that are certified to Red Tractor standards while almost 700 major processors and packers use the Red Tractor logo and it now appears on £12 billion-worth of food and drink products sold in retail outlets and foodservice establishments throughout the country.
Red Tractor also has standards and inspections for livestock transport covering both red meat and poultry, livestock auction markets and lairage, slaughter and meat processing.

Promoting quality
There is no point in having a scheme if nobody knows about it. In 2015, consumers saw the largest ever on-pack promotion for Red Tractor products. The seven-week campaign ran across all categories of Red Tractor pre-packed branded foods, including meat and poultry, dairy, cereals and fresh produce, and featured around 10 million on-pack labels across most of the major multiple retailers.

Did it work? As well as driving record levels of traffic to www.redtractor.org.uk, the supporting marketing activity reached 570,000 people via Facebook and Twitter and an audience of almost 20 million via radio and TV programmes featuring celebrity brand ambassador Alex James. Not only that, but over 120,000 people entered the competition at the heart of the campaign – a six-fold increase on the usual response level.

Planning is now under way to build on this success in 2016 and the team at Red Tractor Assurance is looking forward to unveiling the details in the coming weeks. Richard Cattell, head of communications and marketing for Red Tractor Assurance, says: “We were delighted with the success of our consumer marketing activity last year and we are currently developing plans for more large-scale, high-profile activity this year. We want as many consumers as possible to recognise that products which carry the Red Tractor logo have been produced to some of the most comprehensive and respected standards in the world.”

David Clarke, chief executive of the Assured Food Standards (AFS) Board explained that sometimes it takes a food crisis for something to be done and this was why Red Tractor was created, following the final report of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak that was published in 2000.“We started the Red Tractor scheme in the wake of the BSE outbreak as there were consumer concerns about the meat they were eating,” he says. “We wanted to reassure the public that food was being monitored and adhered to the highest standards.” He says that, often, it’s only when something goes wrong that people speak about the sector. “There is an expectation that the food industry has got a responsibility to get it right and they’re right. Businesses cannot only be reactive when there’s a problem and should always adhere to the highest standards possible. I’ve worked in the sector for over 40 years and have seen knee-jerk reactions, and they don’t sustain.It’s better to have something in place that will protect the consumer and the food they eat.”

Every business that uses the Red Tractor logo must be licensed by the scheme. They can only use the logo on product that comes through a complete chain of assured businesses – from farm right through to pack. Every processing and packing site must be inspected and certified against specified standards. These standards will include Red Tractor’s own standards, but might also include others deemed suitable such as the BRC Global Standard or the British Meat Processors Association’s BQAP scheme. Businesses must maintain the necessary certifications and renew their Red Tractor licence annually. Fiona Childs has been working as an auditor, completing Red Tractor Traceability Challenges since 2013. She says: “Consumers have the right to know where their food is coming from. They also need to know that it is safe, identifiable and reaches their tables under well-managed conditions such as welfare, sustainability and traceability systems. This right applies whether it is meat, produce or dairy.

“As Red Tractor auditors we know that we, ourselves, are also consumers. We audit to ensure that, from the farm of origin to the tables of the consumer, the Red Tractor chain is unbroken and its integrity maintained. Our responsibility is to prove that the end-product was grown or raised on a Red Tractor-assured farm.”
She explains the importance of the scheme. “Red Tractor auditors take this responsibility very seriously and are passionate about the need for a farm assurance scheme that safeguards us – the consumer.” Of course, running these schemes cost money but Smith insists it is worth it. “Compliance with such robust standards is an additional cost to industry, but this is a small price worth paying to produce a wholesome Northern Ireland FQAS product that consumers can trust,” he says. “Buyers in the supply chain must not be tempted to compromise on standards and should get behind FQAS beef and lamb. Farmers, processors, retailers and consumers all benefit from the assurances and product integrity provided by FQAS.”

Freedman says these assurance schemes can translate to additional sales. “More British shoppers say they will now focus on quality (24%) in the year ahead, in comparison with saving money (20%). This is the first time this has happened since we started tracking the data in 2010.”It’s a similar situation in Wales. A report by Brookdale Consulting on behalf of HCC in April 2013 (entitled ‘Flying the Flag: Decade of Success for the Welsh Red Meat Brands: Review 203-2013’), found that recognition of the quality of Welsh red meat led to increased exports and increased demand for Welsh red meat by retailers in the UK. As a result, PGI Welsh Lamb in particular now attracts a retail premium that is passed down through the supply chain. The report estimated that premium and new market opportunities for the PGI Welsh Lamb and PGI Welsh Beef brands had grown by more than £115m.

Rather than explain the benefits of having the schemes, Clark sets out why not having them can impact a business. “Before the BSE crisis, the UK beef industry was quite significant, but it was decimated by it and I would say that it never fully recovered from it.”Smith adds that it’s not just the domestic market that benefits from these schemes. “FQAS is important, not only for the local market but for the export market too. FQAS is a prerequisite for servicing the vast majority of our markets in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe and there is absolutely no doubt that industry participation in FQAS is at the top of the list of essential requirements needed to do business with them. Over 99% of beef from price-reported prime cattle is now assured and this very positive position demonstrates the industry’s ambitions to service all of its current and future markets with premium products from assured chains.”