Red Tractor has announced several changes to the way it runs its scheme for farmers. But currently the plans are light on detail.
Chief executive Jim Mosely says he wants to develop ‘modular standards’ that will sit alongside the core Red Tractor standards which are designed to guarantee welfare, environmental and food safety.
In other parts of the scheme – dairy for instance – these modular standards could mean milk being labelled with its method of production. Outdoor grazed milk could become as familiar as free-range eggs. Or in pork, ‘indoor intensive’ could become a familiar label on the supermarket shelf.
What this means for poultry, where free-range has been common currency for yonks, is less clear, but Mosely suggests it could involve adding more premium tiers.
“Currently under Red Tractor we’ve got an indoor standard and we’ve got a free-range standard. The question is whether there is something more that consumers will be looking for that currently isn’t covered by the Red Tractor standards.
“If a proportion of the population is looking for organically produced product or sustainably produced product, Red Tractor doesn’t offer those individual items, it just offers its core standards. With an organic module, or a sustainable module or a higher welfare module, we are giving that choice to consumers under Red Tractor.”
Mosely told Poultry Business the announcement was just the start of a lengthy process. “Exactly how those modules will look, how they will be defined, is the work we’ve yet to do.”
Mosely says he and his team will spend the next year doing two bits of research, firstly studying how assurance schemes are run around the world, and secondly talking to consumers about what different terms – ‘higher welfare’ for instance or ‘sustainability’ – mean to them.
“Then we can start to develop the standards that will underpin those modules and when we’ve got that we’ll understand better how to communicate those to consumers. The project is right in its infancy at the moment, but we wanted to announce this is the direction Red Tractor will go in.”
If the new modules do offer, for example, an organic or ‘sustainable’ bolt-on, there is an obvious cross over with other assurance schemes already available such as LEAF, the Soil Association, or Organic Farmers & Growers.
Mosely acknowledges this conflict. “There are already a lot of excellent schemes out in the marketplace at the moment, all very good schemes and run by experts in those areas.”
So, how to manage this? Mosely thinks the different schemes could work together. “All those schemes exist, and the question is whether we could collaborate with those other schemes to develop those modules.
“We believe it could be possible to offer a much easier to understand labelling system, which could bring a lot of clarity to labelling so consumers have a much more informed choice.”
What this will look like is not clear. Could there be a Red Tractor organic chicken product backed by the Soil Association? Or a Red Tractor ‘sustainable’ chicken, produced with LEAF’s approval?
All this throws up more questions. Would a ‘sustainable’ chicken label imply all other Red Tractor products were unsustainable? Would an RSPCA higher welfare Red Tractor chicken cast aspersions on the welfare of other chicken?
Mosely acknowledges much is still to be thrashed out. He says he’s had “limited” contact with the RSPCA on any possible collaboration, but says he’s had more detailed discussion with LEAF, which focusses on sustainability.
“Their number of farmers is pretty small, and the label is not really recognised by UK consumers, but their aim is a very worthy aim,” says Mosely. “So if Red Tractor was to combine with LEAF it would effectively be taking the LEAF framework to many more farmers.
“So we have 46,000 farmers in total, and LEAF has probably about 500, and we can take their aims to a much broader farmer population, and the question is whether we can combine with LEAF to make a consumer label that makes it very clear they’re getting environmentally sustainable products.
“That is a good example of how we could collaborate to increase choice, increase the clarity on the labelling at the same time, and there is the chance of reducing the cost and audit on farmers because it would be one body.
“We are at the very, very early stages but some of those discussions are underway.”
Mosely anticipates it will be at least the end of 2019 before the new modules are in the marketplace and he plans to update farmers in February, because by then the work will have been done looking at different international schemes and carrying out the consumer research.
There is an enormous amount of work to develop the modules, the labelling and so on, and I wouldn’t expect those modules to be in the market until the end of 2019.
Tougher inspection regime
Red Tractor has also announced it is making its inspection regime tougher. This is partly in response to several welfare exposes, not involving poultry, which in one case made the front page of The Times during the summer and which pointed the finger at Red Tractor’s supposed lax inspections.
Currently, Red Tractor farmers have an annual audit. This is done by appointment, which critics say gives farmers time to tidy up their systems and processes, but which offers no guarantee for the other 364 days in the year.
Mosely says he wants to move to a “more risk-based approach”.
“Effectively that means we identify those farmers that require more support or more scrutiny to achieve that 365-day compliance with the standards and for those farmers we will increase the inspection frequency and those inspections will become unannounced.
“As it happens within the poultry sector the vast majority of farmers comply brilliantly with the standards and if you’re a farmer that is complying there is no change, but if there are farmers with failures against the standards they will see the difference.”
Currently if during the annual audit there is a major problem that could affect animal welfare or the environment or food safety, the farmer will face expulsion or suspension immediately, but if it’s a minor issue like the failure to full in a training record for example then the farmer has to provide evidence to the certification body within 28 days that it has been rectified it.
“In the future if there are a number of failures the farmer will get another unannounced inspection within three months to make sure those failures are closed out continually, not just to provide the evidence,” says Mosely. “And that is the benefit of the unannounced visit, to make sure those habits have become engrained on the farm.”
Red Tractor, which launched 19 years ago as an assurance scheme for the whole of the British food industry, has long been dogged with the accusation that consumers don’t know what it stands for.
This was partly the reasoning behind the new Red Tractor TV ad, which started its run in mid-September. “It’s really important consumers understand the lengths we go to to produce safe and responsibly produced food,” says Mosely.
There’s also another purpose to the ad, he says. “I also want it to make Red Tractor far more aspirational in the farming world. When I speak to farmers almost everyone tells me we don’t tell consumers enough.”
So, there’s a whole suite of changes afoot. More will become clear in February. And whether other organisations such as RSPCA will want to collaborate on a combined assurance label remains to be seen. Everyone involved in the supply chain will have to wait and see if Red Tractor can hone its message for a post-Brexit world, when potentially, a British assurance scheme could have more traction than ever before.