Responsibility hangs on supermarkets
Many of the supermarkets (aside from a small number which source almost entirely from British farms) appear to be playing a very clever game. From the Minister down, everyone is doing their best to switch the spotlight from themselves to countries as far away as Poland and Romania, as the hunt goes on for whoever is really to blame for the horse meat scandal.
But the undeniable truth is that this whole mess has demonstrated beyond doubt that assurance checks on imported ingredients have at best been weak and at worst non-existent.
Ask any of the processors or retailers about checks and verification on imported ingredients and they look you in the eye, adopt an expression of disbelief that you should even ask such a question and then reassure you they have representatives across the globe checking on assurance and traceability.
Over the years a good number of us have been in a position to pose these very questions. But instead of disbelieving the responses and asking to see proof, I must admit I and many others have simply walked away. We had little option but to take them at their word. But having done so now we really do see the truth: the blame for this current mess lies squarely on the shoulders of the large supermarkets – they have to take total responsibility for the quality of what they offer consumers.
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During my time representing beef and sheep farmers with the NFU, I visited numerous processing plants in the UK, Ireland and France. In some, there were clearly question marks over the verification and traceability of the vacuum packs being sliced open by the thousand and loaded on to conveyors before processing and packing as burgers, mince or ready-made meals.
But the current fiasco is no surprise, given the intense pressure among supermarkets to undercut the competition, to ensure that the so-called "weekly basket" is competitive.
As beef and sheep farmers producing and delivering livestock of world class quality and traceability to the gates of the abattoirs and processors, we feel totally let down by a significant number of companies further up the chain, and in particular by one very large processor. Indeed many farmers are already starting to ask why they should bother with farm assurance, why support the Red Tractor?
In my opinion now, more than ever, is the time to get behind farm assurance and the Red Tractor, to ram everything they stand for down the throats of the processors and to make them pay the proper rate for quality products.
As individual farmers we can all do our bit but we need the organisations that represent us such as the National Sheep Association, the National Beef Association, the NFU and EBLEX to get the message over.
Our representatives within these organisations need to be strong and assertive but I'm afraid many of them are of the opinion that multinationals are too big and too important to stand up to. That is absolute rubbish: currently they need our produce like never before.
Now is the time for our representatives to show leadership and market our produce.
They need to realise it is entirely possible to maintain a working relationship with these companies while forcefully pointing to the error of their ways and the advantages of sourcing, whenever they can, farm-assured British produce. It's a no brainer.
My only real regret is that we still have not achieved Protected Geographical Indication for beef and lamb from the South West: what an opportunity we are missing.
I mentioned Eblex – shorthand for the English Beef and Lamb Executive – but I and many others are beginning to wonder whether it's not too close to the processors. In its defence much of its work is with the abattoirs, but I do question the close contacts with some individual companies and between certain individuals, which must make it difficult to raise contentious issues such as sourcing, traceability and labelling.
The process by which farmer board members are recruited to Eblex absolutely must be re-examined by the Minister so that grass roots producers are represented. In theory it's fine to aim for a board consisting of people who demonstrate a wide range of experience, but the result can be a board made up of "farmers" with significant off-farm activities. These are the professional committee men looking to spend time away from the farm cultivating contacts, looking at the bigger picture but meanwhile losing sight of what their real purpose is – representing the views and needs of the levy payers. Put simply, the number one priority should be marketing our Great British beef and lamb.
And one final question to Eblex: is it possible to represent farmers, abattoirs and processors under one umbrella?
The horse meat crisis has left producers of British farm-assured beef and lamb standing in front of an open goal with the ball at their feet – I just hope the public is getting the message as to what the Red Tractor symbol stands for.
As for our customers, I can only advise them to support local butchers and farm shops or, if they must shop in a supermarket, to ask for the assurance of the in-house butcher that what they are buying is genuinely British.