NI indepth: How a Dutch retail chain inspired NI Farm Quality Assurance
Trade tariffs, red tape and traceability concerns could make quality assurance programmes all the more important post-Brexit.
But trade and subsidies aren’t the only things the EU has brought to farmers in the North.
Speaking to AgriLand, Livestock Meat Commission (LMC) chief executive Ian Stevenson explained how an idea inspired by a Dutch supermarket has shaped the last 25 years of the region’s livestock rearing.
Stevenson said: “Our main aim [when LMC was founded] was to improve the marketing and marketability of beef and sheep meat.
There was a series of functions identified – improving the understanding of market requirements, improving how we add value to the marketing and adding value to the industry.
“Back then in the ’60s and early ’70s we would have been a very different industry than we are now but we’ve always been export-focused because we’ve a small population – and a big population of livestock.
“Before the years of BSE we were exporting largely into the continent. We had signifcant contact with the Albert Heijn supermarket group in the Netherlands.
“Around the same time we developed Farm Quality Assurance, we had a brand – a registered trademark – called Greenfields.
“Farm assurance was developed to support the marketing of that brand.”
The Greenfields brand has been a major success story for the LMC – abroad it is widely regarded as a symbol of quality and ethical grassland farming.
It kept going during the years of BSE with meat sourced in the Republic of Ireland.
Today, the Greenfields brand by agreement is supplied by Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assured meat and Bord Bia Farm Quality Assured meat – to ensure its sustainability.
Stevenson added: “In the early days the Heijn supermarket group was speaking to the industry here and ourselves asking what they could do to improve the logo and the marketing of Greenfields beef.
“I suppose the aim was to demonstrate the naturalness of the product and – on the back of that – Farm Quality Assurance was developed almost as a code of practice in terms of animal welfare, care for the environment and food safety practice.”
Farm Quality Assurance recently celebrated its 25th year, as LMC also celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The Farm Quality Assurance scheme was set up to recognise the high standards farmers go to to ensure their product and assess farms against a strict list of standards.
But signing farmers up to a strict list of new rules is never an easy task. As a result, the new scheme would be farmer-led.
Stevenson said: “My understanding is that LMC wrote to all the farmers registered at that time to see what their interest was in developing a code of practice and a Farm Assurance Scheme was set up for those reasons.
“Prior to BSE we had some of the highest cattle prices in Europe – we were doing premium trade into those continental supermarkets.
“If you look at prices in Northern Ireland and Great Britain we still are among the highest beef nations in the world because we supply primarily the UK foodservice market.”
The next 25
It’s expected the key aims of the LMC will be as central to securing Northern Ireland’s beef and lamb exports as it has been over the last 25 years.
Already, the body has made waves with its work on securing market access to non-EU countries such as the Philippines.
Stevenson explained the scheme will continue to hold value post-Brexit.
I don’t think there’s a desire within industry to erode those standards – it’s more about shouting about the way that we do what we do.
He said: “There’s two things, one obviously once we leave the European Union, there’s not a strong desire within industry to lower our standards.
“There’s been some talk asking why we have to have all these regulations, but I think if we want to maintain our premium position with customers wherever they may be then we need to maintain our existing standards and present our standards as worthy of those premium markets.”