Following on from last weeks blog about food traceability, this week we look at how consumers have also been leading the charge for quality assurance – with a growing interest in food standards prompting managers of quality assurance and food certification schemes to review and refine their practices – but this is not without challenge for the food industry, as they adapt their practices to meet consumer demand.
Speaking to the Meat Trades Journal last week, Jonathan Whitehead of the Scottish Food Quality Certification (SFQC) scheme described how the focus had shifted onto quality assurance and food traceability within the last year and a half, following the horse meat scandal:
“We’re seeing a lot more scrutiny by processors and retailers as to the origin and assurance status of the stock they’re buying, processors are asking more questions about the animals arriving at their abattoirs – is it demonstrable that the animals are life-assured?
“A lot of the assurance schemes tend to be ‘pull up’ not ‘push down’ as people join, because the person buying their product from them demands it or will pay a premium for it.”
Whitehead illustrates this in action as he describes how the recently launched quality assurance scheme for park venison helped to guarantee quality in a growing industry sector:
“In the past, venison was predominantly sold through small butchers, restaurants and hotels, and it was likely to have been provided by a local supplier, which was considered fine. But having a food product that doesn’t have an independent assessed quality assurance chain behind it is becoming far less acceptable. The suppliers felt it gave them more of a guarantee of quality when talking to retailers.”
Laura Ryan, quality schemes marketing manager at Eblex, suggests that it can be difficult to raise the standards of a scheme as the industry also has to raise it’s standards each time a change is made:
“We need to keep tweaking to make sure we are up to date with the science and pushing the industry and supporting them as hard as we can, this also involves looking at different quality schemes from around the world, to understand how these could benefit both consumers and the industry in the UK.”
One of the challenges arising from the abundance of assurance schemes is that some consumers are overwhelmed by them – and do not know what the various standards mean, although David Clarke, CEO of Red Tractor suggests that consumers are gradually becoming more familiar with the assurance marks and what they stand for:
“We’re seeing a positive creep forward on consumers’ understanding year-on-year, but in many ways we depend on our partners and what they do with our logo,” citing Kentucky fried Chicken’s widespread use of the Red Tractor logo to indicate that the food was produced within a set of standard criteria.
“We’re not all working in splendid isolation; each of the schemes has a purpose and a role and we work together to avoid duplication. I think the whole system is the better for it. For example, we underpin Freedom Foods – we’re not competing with each other, we’re actually quite joined up, and most of the criteria in the Eblex mark are from Red Tractor. But we would like to see a proper understanding of how things join up – The logo isn’t a just a consumer tool, but a tool to control integrity in the supply chain.”
Spokesman for of auditing and certification body KIWA PAI, Jonathan Troth suggests that although improvements have been made, there is still work to be done, including more self-regulation within the food industry:
“Food enforcement authorities can do so much, but the food industry is a big industry and FSA, EHO and Trading Standards cannot monitor everything. More unannounced and targeted checks would help, as would greater penalties for those who wish to cheat the system, one challenge is to move away from the use of traders and agent that can anonymise the supply chain. There was a move to do this post horsegate, but there is still room for improvement.”
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