Single assurance scheme plans divide opinion across industry

Proposals to introduce a one-size-fits-all quality-assurance scheme continue to drive a wedge between growers' opinions following the consultation deadline this week.

The initiative by the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board is gauging support among levy payers and the food industry on investing in such a system.

If they agree, a welter of quality benchmarks such as Tesco's Nature's Choice could be replaced by one quality framework branded with a single logo.

Deadline for responses was today (31 October) and the board is to decide on an action plan on 17 November. But the industry is split on the benefits of such a scheme.

British Independent Fruit Growers' Association (BIFGA) chairman John Breach said members wanted HDC money spent on research, not marketing (Grower, 9 October).

He said: "I doubt our members would favour funding such a scheme with levy money. People are already unhappy with the new levy set-up and funding allocations."

HDC chairman Neil Bragg said there may be a case for rolling several audits into a unified approach, but supermarkets could find it impossible to toe the line. "They seem in favour but there's always a 'but'. Each one wants something to differentiate itself, which could make the idea almost impossible."

However, NFU president Peter Kendall said this was a "golden opportunity" for the industry to send a "loud and clear message" of support for a common system.

"The alternative is to risk an increase in the proliferation of schemes at retail level, all with different standards, as retailers fight over their points of difference.

"This cannot be what the industry wants," he said, plugging the Red Tractor scheme as having the credentials to become a single cross-sector framework.

Chief executive Caroline Drummond of Leaf, which promotes good farm management, said joint inspections and less paperwork were good but a single-market approach may hurt growers who wanted to add value and build relationships. "We are in a global market with big fluctuations on prices," she said. "I fear a unified system could be like a backward step into communism where everyone adheres to one rule."

Ornamentals trade group the HTA said it "vigorously opposes" the proposals and argued they were a bad use of levy-payers' money (see HW, p4).

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