Red Tractor Assurance is recognised by the public as a mark of safety and animal welfare. As consultations continue on proposed changes, ROBERT GIBSON talks to North East farmers about why they disagree with the stance taken by others on the future of the scheme
For nearly two decades, the Red Tractor symbol has served as a well-recognised mark of quality in English beef and lamb.
Launched with the help of a £1m grant from the NFU Mutual Insurance Society, the initiative aims to reassure the consumer on both animal welfare standards and safety.
Significant changes, though, are on the cards, with a consultation now under way over proposals to increase the length of time cattle and sheep would have to be on-farm to gain assured status, from the current 90-day minimum to the lifetime of the animal.
The changes would also mean those rearing livestock would have to become farm assured, with finishers no longer being able to buy young stock from farms that were not.
Initially, at the least, the response from the farming community was almost inexplicably hostile.
In the first of a number of consultation meetings to be held throughout the country, farmers in Devon unanimously rejected the proposals, calling instead for further promotion of the current system.
The official line from the Hexham-based National Beef Association was likewise one of extreme caution, with chairman David Thomlinson suggesting last month that while lifetime assurance was a legitimate long-term goal, pushing too hard for it at this stage could cause more farmers to drop out of the scheme.
“We do not need full farm assurance and this is not something supermarkets or shoppers are asking for,” he said.
“British beef is already renowned throughout the world for its quality and traceability. The NBA believes that changes should only be introduced if they are beneficial to both consumers and the industry.”
Many NBA members here in the North East, however, think that’s exactly what the proposed course of action could achieve.
At a recent meeting of the organisation at Hexham Mart, for example, farmers - in stark contrast to those in the South West - voted unanimously in favour of bringing whole life assurance in as soon as practically possible.
When the issue was put to an NFU meeting, meanwhile, only a few farmers were against the changes - a group incoming county chairman Hans Porksen jokingly referred as “the square wheel brigade” - while around 30 expressed their enthusiasm for the plans.
One significant objection to the shake-up is that it could create additional bureaucracy in an industry that already faces it fair share of red tape, regulation and costs.
Northumberland hill farmer, Malcolm Corbett, who has been involved with the NBA for a number of years, as well as having held senior roles in the NFU and other farming organisations, however, suggested there was a certain naïvety in this kind of argument.
“Like any other farmer, I don’t want to face excessive rules and regulations,” he said.
“But look at the world we live in. What’s vital to me as a hill farmer is profit.
“Many things go into running a profitable enterprise, but one major factor is good marketing.
“The Red Tractor is the strongest marketing tool I think I’ve come across in my lifetime as a beef and sheep producer. It is well-recognised, above other marks, and it has helped us when it comes to the prices we have fetched.”
He pointed out that, while involved in a recent sale at Hexham Mart, he had counted only eight pens that were not farm assured and suggested this was representative of a mass enthusiasm for the scheme in the region.
Indeed, it seems to be a peculiar quirk of Red Tractor that the further north you go in the country, the greater the emphasis farmers put on it.
“But in my mind the current 90 day system devalues things,” Mr Corbett added. “It lets cattle in by the back door and it’s also a bit deceptive for the consumer.
“Most would believe that the animal had been farm assured for its lifetime - and it should be.”
Mr Corbett said he was “intrigued” that the principle of farm assurance was even being debated when there were much more pressing issues to contend with.
Some supermarkets, for example, would request that livestock be farm assured, but would not include the Red Tractor logo on the packaging.
The farming community should therefore be pushing for the value of their work and standards to be fully recognised in the marketplace.
With lifetime assurance being a “no brainer”, the NBA’s approach had been “baffling”, he said.
“They seem to have taken a populist approach when it comes to farms in the South West, but that is not the position we should be taking,” Mr Corbett said. “I can not understand it, to be honest.
“It certainly has to be handled very carefully and it will take time, but it should be an objective to get there.”
Former NBA chief executive, Robert Forster, from Hexham, agreed, suggesting the stance taken by South West farmers was particularly puzzling since a PGI (protected geographical indication) in place for West Country beef already included life-time assurance.
He likewise pointed out that the proposals had not come in the form of an “ambush” but rather as the result of years of transparent discussion.
“I would say that as consumer expectations rise, the standards in farming should rise with them,” he said.
“The position taken by the NBA on this would appear to be very different to the feeling expressed in the North of England.”
Indeed, Red Tractor Assurance chief executive David Clarke said he been disappointed by “pre-emptive” antagonism towards the proposals, seemingly stemming from one from particular geographical area, in which some had “stirred up quite a lot of discontent”.
“In the South West, we’re now seeing some more reflective responses coming through and we’re seeing a similar response in other parts of the country,” he said.
“I have always said that we can not pre-judge this and it would be foolish to make a decision at half-time before we know what the full story is.
“We are very much sitting on our hands at the moment and inviting further comments before the end of the consultation on March 27.”
The 90-day system, he added, had long been considered a “weak link” as far as the promotion of welfare standards in particular was concerned and, while the consultation was primarily focussed on England, Red Tractor also wanted to engage those behind assurance schemes in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
“One concern which we have taken really seriously is that we should not create a shortage of assured cattle,” he said.
“That would happen if this was rushed in too quickly, so there would be a moderate transition period and it could be 2020 before the process is completed.”
At the time of going to press, no one from the National Beef Association was available for comment.