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Norman Bagley is Head of Policy at the well-respected multi-award-winning trade body The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers. Originally a livestock auctioneer for 35 years, originally in the Welsh Borders and then from 1985 at a farmer-owned auction at Ripon. AIMS was formed 20 years ago this month after Norman had sat on the Maclean task force on meat inspection charges for abattoirs, which by chance also identified the previously underestimated importance of the medium and small independent abattoir sector. He was asked to set up a representative organisation which by complete chance was done on February 21st 2001, the night before the foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed. Norman is well known across the livestock industry and, along with his team at AIMS, the wider food industry and within Government.
One business success
- Being here: of course, AIMS has had many successes over the years. Were we not successful then (a) we wouldn’t be here and (b) we wouldn’t be growing in membership. So our main business success is that we are still here after 20 years. In terms of the last 12 months, we have proven ourselves to be on the button in terms of the coronavirus pandemic. We have kept our members updated daily throughout and have received many plaudits for our work. The Chancellor has said of us “From our correspondence and meetings over the years I have become aware of the contribution you have made to the meat supply and processing industry” whilst a member recently said that “The information you provide is invaluable. It is worth the annual subscription many times over”. We have worked alongside the Government throughout providing them with information about the challenges that the market has faced and suggestions for actions they should take. Many of these have been adopted such as extending the seasonal agriculture workers scheme to include the poultry sector in 2020 (we await 2021 at present), Trade Credit Insurance, extending the pay-back period for bounce-back loans and easier access for workplace testing from SMEs in the meat and poultry sector.
Two challenges for the sector
- Regulation: the biggest challenge to the abattoir and cutting plant links in the supply chain is over-burdensome regulation adding unnecessary inspections and costs to what is already a tight margin market. We are not against regulations what we are against is the irregular and haphazard interpretation of the regulations by those who are there to ensure that all businesses are assessed to the same standards.
- The Red Tractor: there is a lot of industry debate about the worth of this standard, which, like AIMS, is 20 years old this year. As an on-farm production standard, we believe that it is acceptable in terms of providing evidence that UK legislative standards and that some additional production standards have been achieved. However, once it sets foot post farm gate it is a mess. Despite what the owners of the scheme claim, it doesn’t drive market access because it isn’t open to 100% of the UK’s retail and out-of-home channels nor does it have any relevance in the export market. Were the Red Tractor an actual vehicle as opposed to a logo I’d say that after 20 years it’s in need of full service to ensure that it is still roadworthy.
Three forecasts for the sector
- DNA Traceability for Meat: M&S already use DNA traceability for 100% of the beef they sell. The technology has come down in price and other markets across the world are using it as a deterrent against food fraud and a means of offering greater returns to producers. AIMS is currently running a proof of concept trial for DNA testing for beef in the out-of-home and retail butcher shops markets with the results expected in the late Spring. DNA tracing will be extended from the beef to pigs (it is already used in the Republic of Ireland) and then on to sheep and, in all likelihood poultry.
- Climate Friendly Food Labelling: let's be absolutely clear when it comes to UK Beef, Lamb and Dairy we are producing low-emission high-quality food. It’s just that no one has grabbed this and marketed it. Some ultra-processed foods on the supermarket shelves do carry CO2 declarations but these are by and largely meaningless to the consumer. Other countries, in particular, New Zealand, market their primary products, which include meat, as low-emission/climate-friendly. Too often the UK plays catch up on these things. The levy boards and the NFU need to work fast and the processing, sector brings forward climate-friendly labelling for ruminant products. Making the case that grazing on what would be otherwise unproductive pasture turns to grass and water into protein whilst also sequestrating CO2 from the atmosphere.
- Coronavirus Recovery: If we are to take out any positives from the pandemic it is that we can all adapt to find new ways of working and find new markets in which to operate. It is not just about home working. We have seen remote audits for processing sites over the last 12 months and they have worked. They have also reduced time and ‘audit’ burden. These need to remain in place. To take this one step further, why not provide businesses which have to be audited with a portal into which they can upload their information as they proceed throughout the year? This would create almost an ‘on-going’ audit system which could highlight real-time issues and ensure conformance rather than the current once or twice per year prolonged site visits.