n With more than 40 food assurance schemes running in the UK, it is no surprise that there is a call for change, says Anne Bruce When it comes to food assurance schemes, you would expect to find tight controls. So the fact that neither IGD, the Food and Drink Federation nor the Food Standards Agency has a full list of the UK's schemes suggests that something may be amiss. So what is "assurance", what do the schemes involve and what do the emblems mean? Food assurance has developed over the past decade as a reaction to food scares such as BSE and salmonella. Essentially, it is a formal code of practice promoted and run by food and farming industry bodies, usually on a commercial basis. The many schemes span niche dietary, ethical, environmental, charitable and economic concerns among consumers, and marks include 10 UK organic endorsements, alongside a host of cruelty-free, fairly traded, locally produced, British, vegetarian, vegan, and pesticide tested symbols. Given this proliferation, it is not surprising that consumers are confused about what each stands for. Even the higher profile symbols have low levels of shopper awareness. For example, the NFU's Assured Farm Standards' Little Red Tractor mark had just 33% customer recognition in an audit last June. The Fairtrade mark, which guarantees prices paid to producers in developing countries, is even lower ­ at 20%. The Consumers' Association published a Marks of Approval report last April which was critical of the level of knowledge among consumers of the standard marks. It concluded: "Endorsement logos are not helpful to consumers because it is not clear why they're awarded, what standards they meet, how they differ from foods without the logo, or whether the endorsement is purely a sponsorship deal." The FSA is conducting its own research into food assurance which is set to be published this summer. It agrees that with more than 40 schemes in the UK, it is time for rationalisation. It also wants to know if overlapping schemes ­ those for meat, eggs and organics ­ lead to higher prices and less choice for lower income groups. FSA chairman Sir John Krebs says: "Industry assurance schemes have a role in promoting consumer choice in the market, but it is essential that this choice is both clear and meaningful. We want more truth, less hype." Yet the Little Red Tractor scheme's failure to connect with more consumers in a lifespan of nearly two years has been blamed on lack of publicity. The Tractor is an umbrella mark for farm assured schemes such as Assured British Pigs, Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb, Quality Meat Scotland and Assured Produce, designed to be easily recognised by shoppers. Former Meat and Livestock Commission chairman Sir Don Curry gave the Tractor his endorsement in his recent report on the future of farming and food, recommending it gets continuing government and industry cash for marketing. The report says: "We think that the Red Tractor should be a baseline standard that all food produced in England should attain." The NFU agrees and it plans to relaunch the Tractor in July, and is asking government and industry bodies for more support. IGD director and Safeway communications director Kevin Hawkins also believes it is a potentially powerful brand under which to rationalise assurance. He says: "Vested interest groups need to be persuaded to subordinate their marks to the Red Tractor. But he warns: "At the same time we must ask if we are putting effort into something consumers want." Soil Association director Patrick Holden believes there are too many organic certification logos. He says: "The proliferation of assurance schemes run as businesses is putting pressure on standards and compromising inspection procedures. We would like to see assurers confined to non-profit making organisations." Mike Sharpe, ceo of the RSPCA's scheme Freedom Food, agrees that assurance schemes must work together to minimise cost and duplication of inspections. Last year the group fell victim to one of the pitfalls of such schemes ­ misuse ­ when Tesco chicken supplier Moy Park was caught using the logo without licence, and jeopardised its credibility. Hawkins, however, goes on to question the need for assurance marks. "Safeway research suggests that up to 40% of consumers don't even look at labels. Isn't the retailer's brand name all the reassurance customers need?" n {{FEATURES }}