THE value to Scottish livestock producers of having strong brands and robust quality assurance schemes is without question, according to Uel Morton, Quality Meat Scotland chief executive.

Mr Morton, who addressed around 150 farmers at McIntosh Donald's Producer Club open evening last week, said maintaining the integrity of the Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb labels was crucial to ensuring the long-term profitability of the Scottish red meat industry.

"As an industry we are very proud of the fact that Scotland was a global pioneer of livestock quality assurance but it is vital that we are not complacent and we remain on the front foot," he said.

There is, said Mr Morton, real potential to close the gaps in the chain created by farmers and others who could meet the quality assurance standards but choose not to join the voluntary schemes. He also reiterated the need to carefully check assurance status with consignors when buying animals.

"It is important that everyone in our industry plays a part in encouraging any weak links in the chain which are not quality assured - whether farmers, hauliers, feed companies, auction rings or processors - to understand the importance of assurance to the future of their own businesses and our wider industry," said Mr Morton.

QMS's marketing and PR campaigns in recent years have worked hard to communicate to consumers what the Scotch brand stands for and the results of initiatives like 'Behind the Label' have delivered great results on behalf of the industry.

Recent independent market research reveals that shoppers expect the brands, with their quality assurance, to guarantee they can trust the meat they buy. They also expect it to be from a known source, of better eating quality, safer to eat and from animals which have better living conditions.

There is 93% awareness of the Scotch Beef PGI brand in Scotland, with 49% awareness in Greater London and the Home Counties, both important target markets for Scotch Beef.

Some 76% of Scots agree that Scotch Beef is a brand they can trust and 89% of consumers understand that the Scotch Beef label means the beef is from Scotland.

Additionally, 67% of Scots understand that the Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb labels mean independent checks are undertaken to make sure the meat has been produced in the right way.

However, while QMS activities have delivered strong consumer awareness of the value of the brands to consumers, said Mr Morton, there is still a real opportunity for those working in the Scottish red meat chain to embrace the value of their brands and the quality assurance schemes behind them.

"The Scottish red meat industry is committed to delivering a top quality product but one of the biggest challenges the wider food industry faces is food fraud.

"As an industry we were in a strong position when the horsemeat scandal broke as we had full traceability and quality assurance standards in place to guarantee the integrity of our labels. This meant that consumers could trust our brands."

Mr Morton said that feedback from processors indicated that the audits of the way they operate undertaken by retailers had become even more rigorous in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.

Mr Morton also drew attention to the importance of strong brand differentiation in terms of the price differential between Scotland and other parts of the UK and Ireland.

For the week ending October 25, the variation in the average deadweight price for an R4L steer ranged from 379p per kg in Scotland to 341p per kg in the south of England and 281p per kg in the Republic of Ireland.

The standards behind the quality assurance schemes are reviewed regularly and updated annually to ensure continuous improvements are made to keep pace with technical and other changes.

Mr Morton added: "The committees which oversee our standards contain processor, farmer and other relevant representatives.

"This helps to ensure any changes necessary to meet consumer and retailer expectations, and to keep pace with technology and other changes in our industry are not only thoroughly debated but are also practical and workable at grassroots level."