Since its creation, Red Tractor has claimed to offer consumers a guarantee of high food production standards, but its latest consultation exposed some doubts about the scheme. Abi Kay speaks to three farmers about their views on assurance and its value to producers.
A small-scale pig farmer, Mr Crown has so far refused to sign up to any assurance scheme, branding them ‘little more than labels’.
He prefers to monitor welfare standards in-house, though has not ruled out joining the RSPCA scheme, which he believes shows greater compassion to animals and more closely reflects his style of farming.
He said: “I do not think Red Tractor’s standards are overly high to be perfectly honest; it is not something I would want to be part of. I believe animals should be kept outdoors. This should be a minimum requirement.
“Red Tractor has false standards. They are saying animals should be kept in certain conditions, but those conditions are not overly high welfare.
“Free range pork and free range pigs should be the standard, not intensively produced animals which are housed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and finished in three to four months. This is not natural.”
Mr Crown described the Red Tractor logo as a ‘safety blanket’ for consumers, and said he believes the scheme is ‘misleading’.
He added: “Red Tractor gives people this idea the produce they are buying is high welfare. But who defines high welfare? Who regulates Red Tractor? They just make up their own standards and as long as their farmers buy into it they are allowed to sell their produce under this banner. It is promoting the intensive production of animals.”
Mr Broom is an enthusiast for the Red Tractor scheme, claiming it is essential for British farmers to be able to differentiate their products in the UK market and, post-Brexit, further afield.
He believes getting assured is ‘well worth doing’ as it gives farmers more options to sell and a higher price when animals are sold at marts, though he did acknowledge local butchers were ‘not bothered’ about the scheme.
He said: “We have a fantastic marque which, given the small amount of money spent on it, scores amazingly well when put in front of the punters in terms of brand recognition.
“The marque shows we are producing food to a good standard and it gives us an ultra-transparent supply chain. You would be crazy to turn your back on it.”
While agreeing all farmers were entitled to their views about Red Tractor, Mr Broom had strong feelings on those who refused to keep up with constantly evolving standards.
“The bottom line is people need to stop whining, moaning and griping”, he said.
“We need to help the people who are struggling but we also need to stop kowtowing to the bottom 10-15 per cent. There are people who are streaks ahead, but we are constantly having to stop and wait for the others to catch up. If you cannot do it then get out and make way for someone else.”
Walter Tyler – Beef farmer, North Somerset
Mr Tyler, who produces suckled calves sold as 12-month-old stores and finished animals, feels Red Tractor has burdened producers with extra costs and red tape but provided little return.
He believes signing up to the scheme would add ‘no value’ to his business and claims it has handed control of the supply chain to big retailers.
He also said farm assurance transfers the costs of complying with food safety legislation from retailers to producers.
“Farm assurance has increasingly been used as a tool by supermarkets to manipulate the market,” he said.
“Their business model involves dictating to suppliers what they will pay and they want to know how much they can squeeze suppliers before they go bust.”
Red tape is an issue for Mr Tyler, who said there has been no discernible reduction in the regulatory burden for farmers, despite the scheme being sold to them on this basis.
He also rejects the notion Red Tractor is recognised by consumers and said the fact butchers and farm shops do not bother with the scheme ‘speaks volumes’.
“I am interested in how Red Tractor is viewed by those who eat beef, so I have asked virtually everyone I meet what Red Tractor means to them.
“I find few know what Red Tractor is about and most buy on price. Those who really care about their food buy from traditional butchers and farm shops who know how to look after meat and charge a premium over supermarket prices.”
Philippa Wiltshire, industry and regulatory affairs manager, said the Red Tractor Assurance scheme was something UK farming ‘can be really proud of’.
“The standards attained by our farmers set the UK apart from its global competitors,” she said.
“Major food and drink businesses have confidence in our fully traceable, assured supply chain, which opens up a huge customer base for farmers to sell their products to.
“Ultimately it is consumers who set the direction of the assurance scheme. We monitor what they value most when buying their food to ensure our members are producing what consumers demand.
“It is a strategy which sees more than 70,000 farmers sign up voluntarily and the logo appearing on more than £14 billion of product.”