It is always good to be given the opportunity to reply to readers’ letters, and I would like to respond to the letter about farm assurance in last week’s Scottish Farmer.

As part of our recent consultation on cattle and sheep standards, we received the same letter from the QMS HQ. I took the opportunity, as we often do with correspondence we receive, to pick up the phone with the individual to address some of the issues that they have raised, but I would also like to respond to their published letter and re-iterate some of the points we discussed.

One key point that the writer might like to consider is that being a member of the QMS Quality Assurance schemes is entirely voluntary. It is not something that ‘has’ to be done, but passing an annual audit and being quality assured delivers a host of benefits, not least access to the widest choice of marketing options for stock.

Many of the QMS staff and board members, including myself and our chief executive, are from farming families and/or are working farmers, so we understand the stresses and time pressures of operating in the sector. However, we are all part of the business of producing food, and with that comes a need to demonstrate it is produced to high standards and is meeting statutory requirements.

While I can appreciate that few people ‘like’ being audited, some do see the process as being more of a discussion, a chance to showcase their stock and to be proud of the fact that their processes, systems, and paperwork are in order – something consumers would expect from all producers, processors, and retailers. It is worth noting that many other food-producing businesses are audited far more often, more rigorously, and with unannounced visits.

It is very clear that we are in a highly competitive market, both at home and overseas. Our competitors are gearing up, building their brands and their stories, and they want our spot on shop shelves and restaurant menus. We need to be smarter and to maintain and build our competitive advantage. Our brands – Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb, and Specially Selected Pork – are underpinned by quality assurance that stitches integrity all the way through our supply chain.

This integrity is key – whether it is persuading cost-conscious consumers at home to choose our trusted brands, or explaining our checks and balances to new export markets which could be worth millions of pounds to our entire sector, from farm upwards.

Gaining and maintaining customer and consumer trust is not easy and takes time, but breaking it can take seconds. To be confident in our sector, where things can change quickly, an annual visit is widely accepted to be the most effective option. Being able to explain to customers – old and new – that every assured farm is visited once a year by an independent auditor gives huge confidence and underpins the ongoing credibility of our brands.

Our Standard Setting Boards are made up of key stakeholders in the industry, including farmers, and a stakeholders’ consultation is always held prior to any full review. In addition, QMS continually benchmarks our standards, ensuring they are fit for purpose, yet not over-burdensome. It is also worth noting that where a non-compliance is found, the assessor will explain their findings and the reason, and support and information as to how it can be addressed is given.

The schemes’ administration and on-farm inspection is carried out by an independent body, Food Integrity Assurance (FIA). It is part of the SAOS ‘stable’, in common with the ScotEID livestock traceability system, and FIA runs entirely autonomously, with its own Board, management team, and independent accreditation through UKAS.

When new trade deals are struck, our whole of life, whole of supply chain assurance gives confidence of high welfare and guaranteed traceability and food safety. As we have seen recently with successful trade show visits, there is a growing export market and strong demand for red meat of known provenance.

Quality assurance is a key part of this, and in maintaining our leading position in home markets; diluting it would simply dilute our ability as a nation to capitalise on our trusted, premium red meat brands at a time when we most need to do so.

Kate Rowell, Chair, Quality Meat Scotland