IP Dairy Farmer - December 2020

Posted on: 04/12/20

It goes from bad to worse for Red Tractor doesn’t it! It recently experienced a PR clangor when Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the chairwoman of Assured Food Standards (which owns the Red Tractor brand), voted WITH the Government Bill on food standards, thus voting NOT to ban imports produced to lower standards than those of the UK. Talk about shooting yourself in both feet! 
This was in contrast to the principles adopted by the Tory chairman of the EFRA Committee and Tiverton and Honiton MP, Neil Parish. He voted AGAINST his own Conservative Government, and thus backed the high British farming standards most farmers are proud to achieve. The eventual outcome was the Baroness will quit her Red Tractor role, but it has left the organisation and its owners (including the NFU’s, BRC, AHDB and Dairy UK) with some headaches to which you should all take an interest in. 

The failure by Red Tractor to take immediate action to immediately sack the Baroness has resulted in reputational damage. This is mainly because its on-farm assessors are likely be challenged when they attempt to ensure farmers comply with the standards as to how they can insist on compliance when the organization’s ultimate boss doesn’t support the motion that food imports must meet the UK standards she, and they, are in charge of implementing! 
Those in charge of recruiting her replacement will surely be nervous about appointing another political person. Red Tractor continues to struggle reputationally, and I believe is in danger of self-destructing. It needs a good turnaround chairman, including appointing a non-political leader who will drive change, promote high standards and not be pushed around by the owners. I can only think of a handful of contenders. 

A year ago, the Red Tractor bosses told me categorically that “it means business” with its risk-based inspections and “is determined to eliminate from its membership the non-compliers who present a significant reputational risk to the industry”. Rightly so. These non-compliers should have their memberships terminated. 

I am not aware of any terminations, but am aware that Red Tractor is finally flexing it’s new found powers and where fails are reported at the un announced audit, farmers are having their Red Tractor certification suspended until non conformances are cleared. In these instances, Red Tractor not only inform the farmer of the suspension, but also the processor concerned. Any Red Tractor compliant processor is then not able to collect and process the milk from this farm until amends are made. 

How long for? It’s entirely dependent on however long the farmer takes to resolve the issue – I have substantiated reports of up to at least a week with no milk collections = no income. 

Whilst there is limited evidence that RT are occasionally suspending those who fail the risk-based assessments and putting them in the position they are unable to sell their milk until the non-compliances are rectified.  The fact they can’t market their milk as farm assured to their regular milk buyer for me is a welcome indication that RT are eventually getting some teeth.
Such decisive action is long overdue for the worst offenders and if they can’t comply, they need to exit dairy farming. Similarly, RT must refrain from accommodating those who are subject to unannounced inspections with claims of how few days the inspector can appear due to workload or other reasons. An unannounced inspection in the food industry is exactly what it says on the can and that’s how it must be applied by RT assessors 

I remain convinced that Red Tractor still remains nervous when it comes to removing its assurance from a dairy farm because they are scared that they put the offending farmer out of business. However, a garage wouldn’t give a tradesman’s van an MOT certificate if it had failed just because the owner’s business relied on having the van. The tradesman would have to put it right.  The principle is the same in our industry too.

In the absence of Red Tractor baring its teeth is demonstrated by an increasing number of processors protecting their brands and reputation with those farm suppliers who do fall into the “unannounced audit” category. It provides help for non-compliers but is now terminating contracts for persistent offenders 

I wonder how long it will be before an aligned or specialist pool dairy farm ends up failing an unannounced audit, and what action will be taken by the processor and/or the retailer?

Most farmers believe our Red Tractor standards are the best in the world but in reality, they are good but not the best, and they could be a lot better. With retailers and processors having their own higher standards (for example First Milk’s pledge and Arla’s Arlagarden) Red Tractor is perilously close to being the lowest standard. It surely must now realize it’s now or never to have respected teeth, and up its game. One reader recently commented that “the dregs of the dairy industry will pull us all down with them, and representative organisations need to think twice before they play the “victim” card when they are suspended or expelled from Red Tractor. That sums up how many people view the situation. I have also heard from a former advisor to the Red Tractor dairy board who said “I have been waiting for those associated to expose the deficiencies in the brand. I commend Ian on taking this bold step, and hope that all listen”.

The elephant in the room is antibiotic resistance which is “potentially one of the biggest threats to our industry”. For sure, plant-based alternatives are free of antibiotics, and you don’t need me to remind you that our industry is under constant forensic scrutiny from activists and the plant-based industry who have an insatiable attitude to knock dairy farming at every opportunity. 

The cost to test every collection for antibiotics is, I am told, is just a few pence per sample, and will, as has been stated to me “remove the hiding places where farmers and processors simply risk it”. In fact, one of the country’s least favorite milk buyers has a reputation with its farmers of turning a complete blind eye to antibiotic failures, informing them that “once it is mixed in a tanker load and our big silo it will be fine”. There are even questions from some farmers who have experienced a recent antibiotic failure as to what the processor did with their milk for which they were financially penalized. 

Yes, big improvements in antibiotic usage have been made, but for sure reports suggest that some vets have a case to answer, are incredibly complacent and need to be more responsible. They may profit from the sale of the drugs, but automatically reaching for the bottle to fix the problem has to stop. 

When the co-operative First Milk launched its First 4 Milk pledge, independent research by Kantar confirmed consumers are concerned about milk production with antibiotics, the treatment of unwanted bull calves, cows having access to grazing and animal welfare. If Red Tractor won’t bring the bottom up or get them out, processors will have to do the job of protecting our industry and its reputation. 

Comments to ianpotter@ipaquotas.co.uk