Just when British farmers looked set to benefit from farm assurance as a sales tool, they have been let down, says Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association.

Nearly 95% of cattle sold for slaughter in the UK are from farms assured to the highest EN45011 standard. These have to meet demanding environmental, welfare and food provenance standards.

Supermarkets have insisted for years that these principles of due diligence have to be met if beef of UK origin is to be given a place on their shelves.

But the same supermarkets now appear ready to turn a blind eye to significant lapses in farm assurance on imported beef. First came Brazilian beef, which the European Commission continues to take a soft line on, despite report after report condemning veterinary standards in the country.

And now the frontline has moved to the Republic of Ireland, where the Bord Bia administered Beef Quality Assurance Scheme is suspected of covering only

10-15% of beef production. This is despite the fact that

UK supermarkets alone buy 35% of produce.

Bord Bia has ignored requests to confirm exactly how much Irish beef output is from farms accredited to the top level - which is intolerable if farm assurance (or the lack of it) is to be taken seriously.

Even worse is the fact only one of the UK supermarkets that imports Irish beef has been prepared to reassure the National Beef Association by authorising an independent inspection and ensuring that beef handled by its Irish suppliers comes only from approved holdings.

The NBA is resigned to imports because the UK will never again be self-sufficient in beef. However, it does believe that supermarkets must be consistent and demand exactly the same standards of imported beef as they do for that which is home produced.

Consequently, it has promoted the adoption of an Assured British Meat scheme for Brazilian farms which supply beef for the UK. This wouldn't be an exact replica of the UK template because it must have more emphasis on environmental and labour protection if widespread Brazilian abuses against the rainforest and the well being of indentured labour are to be covered. However, it would prevent any beef with sub-standard production credentials ending up on supermarket shelves.

There are huge advantages for retailers and producers alike if assurance is used. Not only does it encourage positive discrimination by consumers between home-produced and imported product, but it also bolsters prices for better provenance domestic beef, too.