Creating world class standards for UK farming and beyond
Chair of Red Tractor Baroness Lucy Neville Rolfe, will today be speaking at the Agribusiness 2020 Conference in Peterborough, an event dedicated to the UK’s agrisupply businesses.
Her speech in full is below:
I am delighted to be here for this important conference at a critical time for the UK. You will have seen that I have an unusual background – having had 3 careers, one in business, one as a civil servant and one as a government minister in the Business dept and the Treasury. That normally only happens in France or China and never to women, so I have been extraordinarily fortunate. It means I understand uncertainty. Indeed, I started life on a family farm, though my father went bust in the ‘60s and had to change career becoming a consultant in Brussels with his own small firm. He must be turning in his grave at recent developments, but it taught me the vagaries of commercial life the hard way.
- Because of course those of us who come from farming backgrounds, are used to dealing with uncertainty…the weather…the climate…crop shortages…sudden changes with ordering and demand…
- But I think it’s fair to say that what we are going through now takes the biscuit…This truly is an unprecedented time for British Agriculture.
- Brexit and now another Brexit election herald major changes for agriculture and food. We have already seen the Environment Bill pass its second reading and the Agriculture Bill is moving into report stage.
- With both, the Government has strongly signalled an increased focus on the environment and animal welfare of which we must take careful note. I believe this is the direction of travel for both main parties.
- The NFU from whom you will hear later have already anticipated this with their proposed commitment of the farming community to achieve net zero by 2040, and their insistence that we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental stewardship across the globe.
- But at the same time commercial pressures require British Agriculture to maximise productivity and improve profitability, whilst also being accountable to the public. That explains their focus on the importance of producing food efficiently and ensuring that we retain and improve our agricultural capacity.
- And then there is the vital question of how much, if any, public support there will be for British farming when we leave the EU. Promises have been made, but any new system of support needs Treasury acceptance if it is not to be whittled away! That is one to reflect upon for all the learned and intelligent people gathered at this conference today.
- I am here today as Chairman of Red Tractor and I believe that in the face of so much uncertainty, our overriding priority must be to reinforce our leadership position for exceptional quality and standards. We must send a firm signal to consumers that British farming produce is a hallmark for high standards.
- We will also probably have an opportunity to secure new international markets. Actually, there is evidence that we can get on with this under existing rules. I know from my experience in China and SE Asia how well our standards are viewed because in those countries they have a serious problem with consistency and transparency of food safety.
- In negotiating any new Trade Deals the next government needs to remember that one of the strongest assets we have in the UK is our food and farming standards.
- Where does Red Tractor and the standards we set as an industry stand in all this?
As you know, Red Tractor is a leading food chain assurance scheme that reassures UK consumers and export buyers that food and drink bearing its logo is safe, traceable and farmed with care.
It was established in 2000 following a number of food scares, including BSE and Salmonella. Since then, Red Tractor has played a fundamental role in helping improve UK farming standards.
- Red Tractor is by far the largest and most comprehensive food chain assurance scheme in the UK. Earlier this year a global independent study found that the breadth and depth of the Red Tractor scheme, which provides full traceability of products from farm to consumer across these areas, was second to none. Former Nuffield Scholar Dr Jonathan Birnie concluded that as a complete assurance scheme ‘Red Tractor is the highest performing on an international basis’.
- Part of our success is being very clear that our scheme is based on four fundamentals for farming:
Traceability. We require that every stage of the food journey is checked and documented from farm to packet.
Safety. We insist on rigorous production standards, so we don’t allow things like growth hormones, irresponsible use of animal medicines, or chlorine washed meat. Just good quality food at its seasonal best.
Animal Welfare. Our animal welfare requirements ensure that our animals have the right living space, food, and water and are healthy.
Environmental Fertilisers and pesticides are only used when absolutely necessary to keep crops healthy and always in a manner that reduces the risk of pollution and impact on wildlife as much as possible.
- For consumers: We provide confidence that food bearing its logo is safe, responsibly produced and traceable
- For our customers – the retailers and wholesalers who sell our produce: We provide a buying specification, due diligence and add value to their offer or brand
- For our farmer members and the food chain: the standards we set, and the requirement of full compliance delivers long-term benefits
- Then there is Government: We provide a vehicle for what is known in the jargon as ‘earned recognition’, which in short allows for a reduction in the burden of inspection and legislative compliance on farmers thereby supporting sales of British food & drink
- While the proportions will vary by agricultural sector, approximately 75% of UK agricultural output is Red Tractor Assured. Meaning Red Tractor annually assures £14 bn of British produced food and drink.
- But we cannot stand still. We need to unlock new market opportunities for Red Tractor like wine, cider, trees, wool and plan to increase our footprint.
- Our success to date has been in spite of a really challenging and complicated consumer landscape.
- A study last month found that two decades after some of the biggest food scares in UK history, from salmonella outbreaks to BSE, 8 out of 10 of adults admit that they take food safety ‘for granted’ and do not consider whether the food they eat is being produced to high safety standards.
- In one way, this demonstrates that we’ve been doing something right – and that consumers trust that we have the measures in place to ensure that things are being done correctly.
- Explanation and publicity are key. We know that people are twice as likely to look for the Red Tractor logo, once they understand what we do.
- For Red Tractor to thrive in the future, we have to keep listening to consumers and understand how we can evolve to reflect their needs. It’s imperative we have the trust of consumers at all times.
- So I hope in recent weeks you’ve seen our new campaign which sets out our credentials and brings together all our 46,000 members in the UK under the banner of ‘Britain’s Biggest Farmers Market’.
- It has run alongside our television ad and together it’s working. Early results from our campaign has found that in the last six months prompted awareness of Red Tractor has risen to 70%, that’s 1.1 million more primary shoppers.
- And now almost 70% of British shoppers purchasing decisions are being positively influenced by the RT logo.
- And alongside the domestic market, Red Tractor Assurance has enabled us to unlock key export markets. Earlier this year we saw the resumption of beef exports to China after a 20-year absence. And only last month we have seen another example expected to provide for UK exports of pig trotters expected to be worth up to £18 million year.
- Standards matter: figures from the US Centre for Disease control and Prevention show that 17 per cent of people in the USA suffer from foodborne illnesses each year; that compares with just 1.5 per cent in the UK.
- And we have seen the stark consequences of this in the US with last year’s contaminations of romaine lettuce with outbreaks of E coli which affected hundreds with some deaths.
- I’m not saying that this couldn’t possibly happen here in the UK, but it hasn’t done so – yet…. probably because we have the standards which make it unlikely.
We do and should vie with the best producers in the world. However failure to have a fair playing field could undermine all the investment and effort of British Farmers.
- The NFU has been clear that for them imports post Brexit must meet UK regulatory standards. Red Tractor goes beyond this basic level and produces food that is traceable, safe and farmed with care and meets the specifications of the multiple retailers and food service operators. We need them to insist on similar standards for imports. And we need to work with a new Government to encourage public procurers of food in our hospitals, schools and prisons to buy from Red Tractor assured sources as well.
- We are never complacent. Our standards may be benchmarked as world-leading, our marketing to the industry and consumers may be starting to work well, but unless our scheme is robust and the food chain is fully compliant, then our credibility could be at risk.
- In the last year, we have begun to roll out Risk-Based Inspections to drive greater compliance.
- We want every member to comply with every standard, every day. For each one of our agriculture sectors we produce a book of individual standards, typically about 160 per sector. That’s over 1,000 standards and 46,000 members, compliant 365 days a year.
- We conduct around 230 inspections every working day and the failure of just one farmer to comply risks the reputation of the scheme and, indeed, that of the entire industry.
- And there always remains opportunities for improvement. We are constantly strengthening the management of our scheme and learning from every issue or incident. A year ago, we introduced a risk-based approach to inspection which focuses on those members who require more support in achieving the standards consistently. For these members we have increased inspection frequency and additional unannounced inspections.
- In its first year of operation 7% of pig farms have been identified as having difficulties and as a result will receive an unannounced spot check from an independent assessor. Of the 46 unannounced spot checks that have taken place so far, the majority of farms demonstrated improved compliance with our standards (80%). On the minority of farms that the assessor found still had issues with compliance, the Red Tractor certificates for these farms were suspended until things were put right.
- We’ve already extended this regime to dairy and poultry and will be rolling it out to all other sectors by the end of summer next year, and welcome input through our various sector board and standards committees.
- Putting Standards at the heart of UK Agriculture will at times mean leading the way and doing what is right.
- Let me touch on one example which is very close to my heart and where we were commended by the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies. This is the battle to fight Anti-Microbial Resistance where we have been able to adopt the guidelines set out by RUMA, the body that ensures the Responsible Use of Medicines in Animals. Farmers are required to develop a health plan and work with their vet on disease prevention and treatment protocols. For example good farm management and stockmanship can prevent lameness reducing the need for drugs and the antibiotics, so that the ones which are the highest priority for human use are largely avoided.
- Our standards were strengthened across livestock two years ago. As a consequence, we have found that the sale of highest priority critically important antibiotics dropped by 18% in 2018. And a study of sheep and dairy farms found that the introduction of the new Red Tractor standards has led to a fall in usage of HP-CIAs, those high priority drugs without which human health would be endangered, by an impressive 92%.
- Standards do require discipline and process, but we recognise we also have an obligation to our members to simplify our processes as much as we can. So, for example we are trying to put agri tech to good use. We are developing an online member compliance portal, which will provide a central system for farmers and growers to upload documents in advance of inspections.
- We are also piloting greater efficiency in the cereals sector. This means that if there are any delivery point rejections in the crops sector, for example because of a consignment of grain with infestation, our systems will allow customers to report this easily online so that it can be investigated promptly and the action taken can be reported back to the customer.
- Automation of this kind is something we believe has potential in other sectors such as reporting antibiotic failures in milk. My experience from a number of other sectors is that technology is a huge enabler and a huge disrupter, so we need to be ahead of the curve.
Section 4 – Complete Assurance
- Another huge area of work for Red Tractor has been what we call complete assurance, launched as a project last year to ensure that Red Tractor farmers are part of evolving policy on environmental matters and animal welfare. Red Tractor’s current farm standards ‘protect’ the environment, but as we move forward, we see an opportunity to develops standards that ‘enhance’ the environment.
- But it is difficult to require this on all farms. We are developing a modular bank of standards that will sit alongside the current core standards working with other experts and standards bodies. This will provide a Red Tractor one-stop-shop for all methods of production. We are working at present on modules for Organic (this would be the first British only Organic marque), Sustainably Farmed, Free Range and Enhanced Welfare. We believe we can offer considerable benefits for our members through the supply chain – farmers, processors, retailers and food service and of course the ultimate consumers.
- This is a time of huge uncertainly, an election with Manifestos still to be published, Brexit and a new way of providing farming support, changing consumption patterns including the shift by some to a more plant-based diet, a digital revolution and the challenge of climate change. Red Tractor has helped us keep British food safe and traceable for 20 years. Our evolving standards can help us to deal with the next 20.
- So I leave you today with three asks for everyone here. First, if you’re a farmer and not signed up to Red Tractor, please sign up. Second, let’s continue to work together, to ensure our industry remains fit for purpose and competitive in an ever more challenging environment. And third, make sure we all remember the consumer in all the decisions we make. There’s a saying that the consumer is king, so it is essential that we observe shifts in shopping habits and tastes, because in my experience he – or I should say she – is a very powerful and successful guide!