It has been a busy time for the UK’s 'most recognised' farm assurance scheme, Red Tractor.

The recent round of sector board updates included, at the Beef and Sheep meeting 'a letter of dissatisfaction', addressed to Red Tractor’s chair, Christine Tacon, and the ownership board, submitted by the National Sheep Association.

The meeting’s report, as published on RT’s website includes:

“Rest assured, myself [John Dracup chair of the Beef and Lamb sector board] and the wider Beef and Lamb board remain focussed on delivering maximum value to the industry and I look forward to providing further updates in the months ahead.”

And “… there should be an opportunity for the Red Tractor team to present their proposals, of radical and substantial change for the Beef and Lamb scheme which could be delivered promptly, at our next meeting in July.”

I can hardly wait to see what rag tag and bobtail ideas they come up with.

One thing we know for certain is that their next meeting in July won’t be attended by Red Tractor’s chair Christine Tacon, who, a few days after the publication of the Beef and Lamb Sector Board’s update up sticks and scuttled for the safety of role at a multiple retailer.

It was, of course Tacon, as opposed to RT’s CEO Jim Mosely, who had to issue the 'Mea Culpa' after Red Tractor’s shambolic efforts to impose the Greener Farms Commitment on farmers, so it is perhaps no wonder that some are asking whether third party assurance schemes such as Red Tractor still have a role to play.

In short, the day to day delivery of Red Tractor and other schemes such as RSPCA Assured have become little more than adding burdensome modules coupled with alarming costs in response to the latest fad or welfare expose to simply be seen to be doing something to try to justify their existence, and meanwhile heaping more expense on an already struggling industry.

So, to quote Dr Bill Jolley, chief assurance strategy officer at New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries when he spoke to the World Food Congress in Tokyo in 2019, 'third party audit is little more than a money-making scam and should be confined to the dustbins of history'.

However, it is important not to confuse outdated third party audit schemes such as Red Tractor with relevant quality assurance schemes that promote whole chain standards from farm to fork to underpin true brands and their values such as in New Zealand, and yes, in Scotland.

Dr Jolley will be fully aware of the power and recognition that the New Zealand Lamb brand has within global markets. Their scheme is a joint primary growth partnership initiative between the New Zealand red meat sector and a government department, The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries, for whom he works.

New Zealand Farm Assurance Incorporated (NZFAI) runs the standard.

NZFAI’s Chair, Nick Beeby is in the process of introducing a single digital whole chain assurance scheme to, he reported to his board, 'reduce duplication and costs in the sector by 37%'.

He said: “We have listened to the valuable feedback from farmers’ on-farm experiences with the programme and we have incorporated improvements.

“A major new digital platform for NZFAI’s programmes will be launched later this year to support farmers and member companies.”

“NZFAP Online will go live for member businesses, including processors and wool companies, on July 31st, 2023, and will be progressively rolled out to registered farmers over the next six months.”

“NZFAP Online will make it easier for farmers to continuously upload farm data to the programme, including on mobile devices, and will streamline the on-farm audit process.”

“It will ensure seamless transfer of data across supply chains and provide member businesses with one source of truth regarding verified suppliers, providing concrete evidence for overseas markets.”

To some this would seem to be enlightened thinking whist to others, me included, it is a common-sense technology based approach that will deliver benefits to farmers and meat processors to ensure that they remain competitive in global markets.

Of course, NZFAI can deliver this to their 8000 plus farmer and processor members because they know that it is they who pay their salaries and not the end customer.

Their membership in the red meat and wool sector is increasing whilst farms who are signed up to Red Tractor’s beef and lamb standards are decreasing.

Clearly they understand the adage that 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. Whereas Red Tractor have quite simply become deaf to needs of those who pay their bills.

This notion is supported by the report from RT’s Beef and Lamb Sector Chair when he asked his board if those present at the Spring 2024 meeting agreed with the sentiment of the NSA’s letter of dissatisfaction and found that the majority did with the notable exception being the retail sector.

The result? The meeting was closed without completing the remains of the agenda. But what of Quality Meat Scotland and in particular their highly valuable Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb brands.

I am sure that many reading this will be of the view that they don’t listen and that they impose unnecessary costs on farmers. However, the principal difference between QMS and Red Tractor is one of accountability.

QMS is defined as a public body and as such falls under the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 which requires them to publish details of their expenditure.

Furthermore, 'One of the main functions of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), as set out in the Quality Meat Scotland Order 2008, is to advertise, promote and market the beef, lamb and pork products of the Scottish red meat industry'.

The statutory levy, paid by you, the farmers and the red meat processors provides them with the funds to promote their assurance scheme and, it must be noted, this this work is not or is unlikely to ever be funded through the Scottish Government.

QMS state that 'Whole chain assurance underpins the integrity of the Scotch premium brands and provides reassurance to consumers of provenance, highest standards of production, animal welfare and wellbeing, to deliver a quality eating experience'.

And therein lies the difference. QMS, a public body, accountable to the Scottish Government for their expenditure but not funded by them verses Red Tractor a not-for-profit company who appear to have lost sight of their need to be accountable to their stakeholders, farmers, and licensees.

Scotland’s principal brand, Scotch Beef, like NZ Lamb, is recognised throughout the world.

Scotch Beef’s value and values support stocking outcomes by retailers and foodservice and purchasing decisions by consumers at home and, more importantly, in global markets.

And Red Tractor? A near meaningless logo whose value is questionable domestically whilst unrecognised globally and who’s values appear to be nothing more than the UK’s multiple retailer’s ever nodding donkey.

I know from speaking with livestock farmers in Scotland that many think of QMS’s assurance scheme as being little better than Red Tractor. That they find the assurance process an additional cost burden that is based too heavily on analysis of paperwork and not sufficiently focused on your skills of husbandry, breeding, and stock management.

But I would challenge this view with 'When did you last speak with QMS?”'.

As a public body, they are accountable and they must listen and want to, no, need to engage with you.

And remember they are accountable to you and the Scottish government whereas, if you are south of the border, you’d be in a far worse position.