As supermarkets scramble to reassure shoppers following the discovery of horse meat in some beef products, STUART ARNOLD talks to the man behind the familiar Red Tractor logo.
HE is reluctant to crow about the horse meat scandal, but David Clarke admits it could be a bonus for British farmers.
The chief executive of Red Tractor Assurance, Mr Clarke is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing food safety, quality and traceability on more than £12bn worth of food products bought every year.
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The not-for-profit firm licenses the use of the Red Tractor logo which is now found on about 50 per cent of all fresh food bought from shops and supermarkets.
It is a sign that products are made to responsible standards and are fully traceable to independently inspected farms in the UK.
“We have beavering away for the best part of two decades now with this, making sure that the British supply chain is well managed and ethical and operated to proper standards,” he says.
“Everyone within the food and farming industry has thought this is very important, but it has perhaps gone unrecognised until recently.
“We don’t want to take too much pride in other people’s fall, but it [the horsemeat scandal] is a bonus for British farmers.”
Mr Clarke said there had been lots of anecdotal evidence that sales of home produced fresh meat were “looking strong” in the wake of the crisis which saw horse meat found in various products, including Findus lasagne and Tesco value beefburgers.
The scandal also revealed a complicated supply chain right across Europe consisting of suppliers, meat processors and abattoirs.
Tesco – the country’s biggest supermarket chain – has since announced that it is committed to sourcing more of its meat from British producers with supermarkets coming under pressure from farmers to sell more high quality, traceable British food.
“Farmers were worried in the first few days of this crisis that the negative publicity this has caused would wash over everybody,” says Mr Clarke.
“But what we have seen fairly quickly is that shoppers are able to tell the difference between very cheap, mostly frozen products, made out of raw materials bought indiscriminately from all over the continent, and fresh locally produced products.
“With our scheme we know exactly what the farmers are doing, we inspect their farms regularly to precise standards to make sure the food will be safe to eat, the animals will be well cared for and the impact on the environment will be minimised.
“Once the animal leaves the farm, we inspect the trucks that take the livestock, we inspect the auction markets, the abattoirs and every factory along the way so that things are done to hygienic and humane standards, all the way down until the product arrives at the shops.
“At times like this when someone else’s supply chain goes hopelessly wrong, the benefits of what we are doing come into sharp contrast.”
About 80,000 farmers are part of the Red Tractor scheme – the majority of commercial farmers in the UK.
They pay a charge to be inspected, helping the scheme to cover its costs. Red Tractor Assurance itself is owned by a consortium which includes the National Farmers Union, food processing and retail trade bodies.
So while it is an indication of quality, does the Red Tractor logo also mean the shopper pays more for that product?
“It shouldn’t”, says Mr Clarke.
“However we are sometimes slightly more expensive because food can be bought cheaper from Europe and distant parts of the world where the costs of production are significantly less than they are here.
“That means our farmers are not necessarily competing on a level playing field.
“But we are not trying to ratchet standards up through the ceiling so food becomes too expensive.
“This is straightforward British produced food at straightforward prices which has value in its own right.”
Mr Clarke describes the revelations that horse meat was falsely packaged up as beef as “out and out criminal fraud”.
And he agrees that there is a section of the public who remain ignorant about where their food comes from.
“To be perfectly honest people shouldn’t understand every detail – there is no obligation on them to do so,” he says.
“But there should be an expectation that people are getting something which is safe to eat, that has been produced to proper standards, and when it is labelled beef it is beef and not something else.”
The horse meat scandal comes at a time when parts of the farming industry are struggling and profit margins are being squeezed.
Last year high profile protests by dairy farmers over the low cost of milk saw the main dairy processors withdraw planned price cuts, just one example of recent strife in the industry.
“Feed costs are going up as are energy costs and farmers are being squeezed,” says Mr Clarke, who has spent more than 40 years in the food industry.
“As for whether farmers are receiving a fair price for their product there is now a Government appointed ombudsman to deal with allegations of unfair treatment of suppliers by retailers.
“Where you are in the North-East it remains a strong farming region and there are a lot of farmers are members of the Red Tractor scheme.
“We regard it as an opportunity for them which we are trying to maximise on their behalf.”