The whole sector must move from procedure-based standards to outcome-based ones, says Simon Roberts

Quality standards have become an accepted part of our lives, but has the agrifood industry become complacent about them? Typically the contents of standards are reviewed regularly, but rarely is any thought given to whether we are still taking the right approach to the standards themselves and the methods by which they are assessed.

In many cases standards have reached the end of their natural lives and should be replaced with more relevant, outcome-oriented marques. In essence, there needs to be a major rethink about our approach to agrifood standards.

Many of the major standards have been around for some 10 years and the industry has become very good at passing its audits every year. But these standards have a natural lifecycle, as priorities in the marketplace change. Originally intended to ensure compliance with legislation and industry codes of practice, many standards represent baseline acceptable practice and no more. Life has moved on and customers, consumers - and celebrity chefs - are now demanding more. Agrifood businesses need to demonstrate not only that their standards are set higher than the legal minimum, but that broader issues such as the environment, sustainability and ethics are being satisfactorily managed.

Often, too, we find that farmers and technical managers alike are frustrated by answering the same questions each year and by the failure of the standards to get really involved in the key welfare and food safety issues. Currently there is a false belief that if there is a system in place with records to prove it, then everything will be OK. As a result a culture has developed in which the system has become the focus for attention. In some cases, this can lead to a box-ticking mentality where the minutiae are checked but the bigger picture is overlooked.

A prime example can be found in the audits conducted on us by our industry regulator, UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service). UKAS audits tend to focus on whether we have the right words written into documents, rather than whether our assessments are effectively controlling standards across industry. We observe a failure to check adequately whether we are applying the required standards across all our assessments - instead, UKAS looks at the work of just one assessor whom we put forward.

Now is the time to rethink standards, to move towards outcome-based standards rather than procedure-based standards. This is already beginning to be considered in some areas. A major EU project looking at animal welfare standards is taking a variety of perspectives into account, including consumer perceptions; the aim being to build these values into the shaping of the final standards.

There is also a need to reconsider how compliance is checked. The burden on food businesses caused by auditing - in terms of time and therefore cost - is considerable. We should move to frequency of assessments on a company-needs basis, rather than as dictated to by the standard. Joint auditing of more than one standard per visit would be a simple solution to minimise time and environmental impact. But for more fundamental change everyone involved in the agrifood business must demand this kind of fresh thinking.

Simon Roberts is technical director of Product Authentication International.