The Food Standards Agency has urged the entire food chain to get involved in food assurance schemes and called for shops to display explanations of food logos, in what it called a "radical" review this week. The agency has been deliberating over 18 voluntary food production assurance schemes in the eight months since it announced the review. Eleven are eligible to use the Red Tractor farm assured mark. It's no surprise that it concluded consumers were confused by logos ­ after all, the Consumer's Association has been saying they were for months. But the good news for shoppers is that the FSA found no evidence that the schemes were adding to their shopping bill. It also discovered that they were often founded on the best practice criteria which supermarkets already demanded. The FSA concluded that assurance promoted good practice and drove up standards, but the chain had to work together to clear up consumer confusion. To do this, it plans to encourage the establishment of a "neutral and authoritative body" that would oversee the current plethora of assurance logos, set common targets and develop the use of logos in the processed food and catering sectors. And it recommends that all logo schemes be certified by the UK Accreditation Service to give them consistent foundations. The FSA follows Sir Don Curry when it focuses on the Little Red Tractor in its review, pointing out that this has already unified diverse farming marks. It agrees the tractor is a possible umbrella brand, which could be used to give consistent basic criteria across assurance schemes which are not currently members, such as the Lion Quality mark for eggs and even organic schemes. But there would have to be changes in the constitution of Assured Food Standards, the independent body that runs the logo for the National Farmers' Union, if it is to be a contender for the role of independent assessment body which the FSA recommends should have a strong consumer focus. David Clarke, chief executive of AFS, believes it is more than up to the job, and says it is already revising its structure so the group is less producer-led. The organisation is seeking to reduce the proportion of its board members who represent producers, aiming for half to be independent rather than the current one third. "We have been working in collaboration with the FSA, the British Retail Consortium and the National Consumer Council on the future of the Little Red Tractor since Don Curry published the Farming and Food report," he says. And he is in complete agreement with the FSA recommendation that the tractor is in need of a major overhaul. The FSA is critical that consumers do not know whether the tractor logo applies to country of origin, production standards or food quality. Sir John Krebs, the agency's chairman, says: "Assurance schemes such as the Red Tractor are potentially a force for good, driving up production standards and expanding choice, but they need a shake-up." Clarke comments: "We have always said that establishing a brand is a long and difficult exercise. I don't suppose that people understood Coca-Cola in its first two years. The Red Tractor is funded on a shoestring by the primary sector, but it needs to be owned by the whole food chain." A big point in the AFS's favour was the agency's finding that consumers do not pay for the Red Tractor scheme. Nevertheless, funding and promotion of assurance schemes is always going to be a hot potato. The FSA review also says that retailers and manufacturers could help turn the tide for logos by taking a high profile in communicating their meaning. It plans to hold a stakeholder meeting in the autumn to set the ball rolling, and is inviting feedback from the industry now. The proposals have already been given a cautious welcome by the Food and Drink Federation, although a spokeswoman insisted: "This must not mean an extra layer of bureaucracy." But on the retail side, Safeway communications director Kevin Hawkins says: "I have yet to see any independent research on what impact farm assurance logos have on consumers' buying habits. Until we have that we have no feel for their importance. We need to go back to customers and ask them what a logo will bring to the party that a retailers' brand name will not." n {{FEATURES }}