The value of so-called ‘quality’ assurance

At some point in the last 25 years or so, quality assurance systems became all the rage. Some private-sector schemes like organic and Conservation Grade (in the UK) have been around for even longer although their focus is on giving the customer reassurance about the ecological impact of production. When it comes to quality food assurance schemes the original was the appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system from France. As to generic ‘quality assurance’ schemes, they probably have their roots in the food crises of the mid-1980s and BSE and the enactment of food safety legislation [as for example the Food Safety Act of 1990 in the UK] that required retailers to show that they had shown due diligence in monitoring their supply chains. The rush to create and implement further Quality Assurance schemes appears to still be gaining momentum after the recent horsemeat scandals.

One immediate point to make with respect to Quality Assurance schemes is to question the use of a term that appears to be borrowed from the industrial factory environment [where product quality audits are made at various points within an assembly procedure]. To what degree do the quality assurance schemes used in the agri-food sector actually assure quality? Is the answer, ‘not at all’? Marks and Spencer in the UK uses the term ‘Farm Assurance’ and that is a more realistic title. Another that would better describe what these schemes are all about is ‘Supply-Chain Assurance’ as that is essentially what they are. They are about providing entities within the supply-chain assurance that those upstream have operated to a specific set of rules.

Given their prevalence nowadays [it is becoming a necessity to be quality assured] it is becoming confusing for the final retail consumer to know what is what. And when all the product offerings are quality assured, just how much difference do they make to the consumer purchase decision or the price they are willing to pay? Demanding of suppliers that they are quality assured is becoming a necessity for those in the retail chains, but is it really about giving the final consumer assurance about the quality of what they are buying or is it more about those in the supply-chain ensuring that they have done their due diligence? ‘Quality’ Assurance schemes have added costs to the supply-chain but to what degree has the final retail consumer or the farmer at the other end of the supply-chain really benefited from them?

Ireland has put significant resources into the creation of a number of quality assurance schemes. Their creators also seem to place significant faith in their ability to advance the cause of Irish products within the market place. Is this faith well placed or has the prevalence of other such schemes amongst competing suppliers already begun to negate any such advantage? That is likely to be the case in Ireland’s main beef market where local-to-the-market producers have also been adopting a variety of similar schemes. They also have the advantage of being local producers in a world where being local may actually outweigh being foreign and quality assured. In addition, UK producers have been far faster at acquiring protected origin status for their products (i.e. ‘Welsh’, ‘Scotch’ and ‘West Country’ Lamb and Beef all have EU Protected Geographical Indication status) than their Irish counterparts. These are in addition to being within various independent and retailer-driven quality [or farm] assurance schemes.

Is there in fact a harsh reality concerning the quality assurance schemes. Are they in fact schemes that guarantee that farmers are following the rules although they are just using good husbandry and animal welfare practices? Are they actually doing anything that they would not normally be doing? Are they doing anything that could be considered to be enhancing the quality of the product in terms of tangible consumer characteristics like, with beef, improved flavour or texture? If the answer is no, do the schemes provide any mechanism of improving the returns to the farmer in exchange for the time and effort and costs associated with being quality assured? The answer is probably no. The reality is that quality assurance has become a baseline market entry ‘ticket’ [as the Irish beef farmer is now finding out] that is a must have for a farmer but which thereon provides little tangible reward.

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