Colin Smith is a busy man. The former chief executive of Safeway is now chairman of discount retailer Poundland and of online wholesaler Blueheath, as well as a director of own-label manufacturer McBride.
And that’s not to mention his role as a trustee of the charity Save The Children. But what’s really occupying his time at the moment is the chairmanship of Assured Food Standards, the organisation that runs the red tractor farm assurance scheme.
As head of AFS, Smith has the unenviable task of uniting the entire supply chain behind the common principle of food chain assurance. He needs farmers and processors to sign up (and pay for it), retailers to put the mark on their packs (not always an easy task) and, crucially, consumers to understand and buy into the concept.
On the whole, the story of the red tractor thus far is positive. The big four retailers - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and, to an extent, Morrisons - are committed to the mark, which puts pressure from the top down on suppliers to adopt the scheme.
But engaging shoppers has been less easy. Research conducted for AFS showed that, while a third of consumers recognised the red tractor mark, few understood what it meant. This prompted a relaunch of the mark, to be backed by a PR and advertising campaign designed to educate consumers.
The message will focus on four key attributes - the fact that the red tractor is an alliance of the whole food chain, that it incorporates independent inspection, is comprehensive and offers traceability.
As for the mark itself, gone is the word ‘little’ and the British Farm Standard motto. In comes a new slogan - Assured Food Standards - and a Union Jack.
Smith is delighted with the red tractor’s “MOT”. “In the past, if you asked 10 people what the red tractor stood for, you would get six to 10 different answers. For the first time, we have got a coherent message.” The inclusion of the Union Jack is designed to communicate the fact that red tractor products are exclusively British. But it has prompted suspicions among farmers that it could easily be changed and applied to produce from abroad - such as with the pork industry’s Quality Standard Mark.
Smith insists this will not happen: “The end users who are putting the logo on their packs are very happy to see it as an indicator of [British] origin.”
AFS has plans to develop the scheme to cover mature beef once the Over Thirty Months rule is abolished [The Grocer, April 9, p66]. Foodservice is also firmly in the organisation’s sights.
However, perhaps most ambitious is the desire to see the red tractor on composite foods. AFS chief executive David Clarke says: “We have tended to allow the red tractor logo only on simple foods but, from talking to the retailers, we have found there is a desire to use it on things such as sausages.
“We are thinking about how we might adjust our criteria to allow that. Maybe we
could single out the main ingredient - saying the sausage is made of red tractor pork. After all, when a consumer buys a pork sausage, he is interested in the pork rather than everything else.”
AFS would like to see the tractor on ready meals, too. But it’s tricky: a product could easily contain meat and vegetables from different farmers, some in an assurance scheme, some not. The ingredients could even come from different parts of the world.
And the Sudan 1 scandal has highlighted the risk AFS could be taking - imagine if a red tractor-marked product provoked a similar scare, even if the ingredient involved was not covered by the assurance scheme.
AFS is aware of the risk, says Clarke. “If we go down that route, we would want to find a mechanism that made it very clear that we were speaking for the meat, or another ingredient, rather than the whole meal.”
Future funding could be a difficult issue for AFS, now that initial set-up grants from Defra will no longer be forthcoming.
As it stands, farmers pay to be audited, from which a small royalty is taken by AFS, and the 350 processors licensed to use the red tractor pay a fee to do so. These fees cover AFS’s administration costs.
But marketing initiatives are expensive, and there is no dedicated budget. While AFS has the reserves to afford this one - with a lot of help from British Sugar and the NFU - funds are set to run out in September.
Smith admits: “We’d like to have a pile of dosh to promote red tractor, but we don’t, so we see ourselves as having a co-ordinating role. We are talking to retailers, processors and levy bodies about support.”
Smith is contracted, in theory, to give just one day a week to AFS, but in reality it takes up rather more time than that. However, it’s clear that he thinks it’s time well spent and that the red tractor is finally moving in the right direction. “We have united the food industry,” he says, “and become an essential pillar of the supply chain.”