Finnie's casebook Rural affairs minister Ross Finnie ardently believes Scottish firms should pull together to invest in more added value and more sassy processing to make products even more profitable and respected on the world stage. Julian Hunt met him Those in the food industry north of the border who have had contact with Ross Finnie are quick to praise their rural affairs minister and the work he has done in the past couple of years. A few minutes into our chat and it's easy to see why they are so impressed. Finnie is passionate about his subject. And the thing that gets him really fired up is talking about why Scotland's food companies should pull together to build on their reputation for quality by adding more value to their products and, as a result, growing sales. That idea was at the heart of the cluster strategy developed by Scottish Enterprise. And plenty has happened since the strategy was launched two years ago. An implentation group is up and running, Geoffrey John has been appointed as its chairman, and a mentoring scheme has been launched for smaller Scottish firms. More important, says Finnie, the cluster strategy has made many food firms wake up to fact they are not all competitors; more of them now realise they can, and should, work together intelligently to find solutions to common problems. "We have two or three very big players ­ world players ­ but a very thin number of them. Then we have a whole raft of highly competent, good quality Scottish companies. We are trying our best at a government level to facilitate change. We can bring the whole show together and that's what we are trying to do." Scotland's industry still faces plenty of challenges, as Finnie readily admits. "Quality moves on," he says, "People think that quality is a fixed component. That if you have a product that is highly regarded for its quality that's it. No, it is not. "Standards move on. Take traceability or the way environmental standards have gone up. Consumer driven industries have tremendously high standards to meet and that's partly what the mentoring programme is all about. Smaller people have found it very difficult to get their head all around that." Finnie adds: "Marketing is the other big challenge. It's not advertising. It's understanding who the ultimate consumer is. Now that's a very sophisticated business. "Many small companies confuse advertising with marketing and don't realise you need a marketing strategy first before you can actually decide on your advertising campaign. "Again you can mentor that. But people have to understand that you really do need to have an in-depth knowledge of the market you are trying to target and again for smaller companies that's sometimes very difficult." There's also a "fashion" element to food, which makes the industry faster moving, affects the way products are packaged and presented, while reducing the shelf life of innovations. Finnie agrees: "You have to decide where your quality product sits. How do we present that in a way that meets these ever moving fashion trends? And how do we do that in a way that retains the essential quality of the product for which we first got the market entrée?" These are not easy issues for smaller companies to address. But there's another, much bigger challenge still to be fully addressed by the Scottish food industry. "One of the major things to come out of the work is the lack of processing capacity to add value. Far too much high quality Scottish product simply goes without anything really serious being added to it. "Seafood is a major problem. If it was not for the fact we can get a premium because we are shipping it at a high quality ­ and live ­ we would be giving it away. "Look at the beef industry. Here's a recognised high quality premium product ­ but again far too many primal cuts are shipped down the motorway for processing elsewhere. But I don't want to give the impression everything disappears without some serious work being done. "We are heightening awareness that if the industry is hoping to survive, then it must be able to command a premium. I can only hope that individually or collectively players in the market will see the sense in investing in a higher level of processing." The message from Finnie is simple enough: while government can facilitate change, it is up to the industry itself to make change a reality. "It's not my business to create markets or make people make things they do not want. But if there is existing product that demonstrably has a world market, then it seems to me there is a job for government to assist the industry to expand." Of course, the efforts of the Scottish food chain to meet the pretty ambitious growth targets identified in the cluster strategy have suffered because of foot and mouth. Despite the problems caused by FMD, there's plenty for Scottish food firms to be positive about. And as the industry's ambassador in chief, Finnie is doing an excellent job in spreading the good news. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}