A new system of virtual farm inspections developed by Red Tractor to uphold standards during the coronavirus lockdown could change the way auditing takes place after the pandemic is over.
The assurance scheme has been trialling a new protocol which allows farmers to upload their documents and records to an ‘online portal’ ahead of a livestreamed inspection where assessors view the farm using video technology on a smartphone.
For those farmers who prefer not to upload their documents and records, assessors review them during the livestream as they would during a routine inspection.
Red Tractor bosses said the pioneering new regime had the potential to make inspections quicker in future and could bring further benefits such as a reduced risk of spreading animal disease.
Speaking during a press briefing, the scheme’s head of operations, Philippa Wiltshire, said: “In some cases, where we have got sectors which are very concerned about biosecurity, this type of technology could help to improve that kind of challenge longer term.
“Rather than a physical inspection, livestreaming could have a role to play as part of our wider toolbox.”
Red Tractor is the first assurance scheme to put together a system of remote inspections which will not need to be supplemented by a physical audit after the lockdown is over.
Chief executive Jim Moseley said it was vital for inspections to continue during the pandemic to ensure a safe supply of domestically-produced food and avoid a huge backlog of inspections after restrictions on movement are eased.
He also pointed out that new applicants seeking assurance because they were no longer able to supply food service markets would need to be inspected quickly if they were to realign to the retail sector.
Before Easter, the scheme had 167 new applicants, including beef and lamb farmers concerned about whether marts would stay open and dairy producers who had previously supplied local cafes.
Around 40 trials of the new protocol have taken place across the pigs, poultry, crops, fresh produce, livestock and dairy sectors, and the aim is to have hundreds more carried out over the next three weeks, before the scheme is fully rolled out in early May.
The new virtual inspections will be ‘targeted’ at farmers whose inspections are due and new applicants.
No unannounced inspections are to take place during lockdown.