The farming community wasn’t immune from the recent internet trend of drawing up humorous “top ten” lists along the lines of: “Things you’ll never hear a farmer say”.
One of my favourites was: “Well, the Government certainly got it right on that one. Mind you, we shouldn’t be surprised as they usually do…”
And, although it’s technically a non-departmental public body which operates at arm’s length from government control, I was reminded of that this mindset towards the Establishment when I interviewed Quality Meat Scotland’s chief executive, Alan Clarke last week after he had announced that he would be hanging up his pink Scotch lamb apron next year.
For, while the news of Clarke’s decision to move on brought plaudits and tributes for his work from industry leaders, the same love hasn’t always been expressed for his organisation by some at the grass roots end of the industry.
And although QMS has escaped lightly when compared with the extremes of opprobrium poured on its English counterparts, the Red Tractor assurance scheme and the AHDB, the performance of the organisation hasn’t been totally immune to censure from those who pay the levies which fund its operations.
Clarke, whose five years at the helm of QMS have coincided with the whirlwind political and economic challenges of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, was phlegmatic about some of the criticism, having been aware from the start that working for an organisation which set standards and gathered levies, it would never be possible to please all of the people all of the time.
But he stoutly defended the direction in which the team at QMS had moved in recent times, with much of the promotional work focusing on reaching younger generations of shoppers through social media – and on taking the message of eating a balanced diet out into schools. “And while this approach undoubtedly yields the best return for our efforts in reaching the people who will be buying red meat both today and in the future, it’s a fact of life that many farmers and levy-payers probably don’t see much of this work as it’s targeted at a totally different audience,” said Clarke.
And while he understood that a lot of people in the industry got annoyed over the attacks made on the red meat sector by the vegetarian and vegan lobbies – Clarke said that it was actually flexitarians who presented the biggest challenge: “There’s a growing number of people who don’t eat meat every day – but we must make sure that when they do eat it, they’re buying the best they can afford. And what we have to do is present them with the credentials which convince them that’s Scotch.”
He accepted that the recent dip in the long-standing premium for Scotch beef was a short-term worry, but he said that building the Scotch brand and gaining allegiance from consumers would see this regained in the future.
On the long-fought repatriation of levies from Scottish animals slaughtered south of the Border, Clarke welcomed the boost to funding which he said was currently on course to provide an additional £1.3 million in the first year. And although the previous “shotgun marriage” which had seen a ring-fenced portion of that budget spent on export promotions had given good results, QMS was now able to focus on its own strategies.
But while the implications of the levy payers poll on the future of the AHDB could have knock-on consequences for this funding, QMS’s dual role as promotional and marketing body and as farm assurance scheme provider differentiated it from operations in England – and he pointed out that the QMS assurance scheme, with 10,000 voluntary members, had pioneered the field which it still led.
A gradual hand over to the new appointee is expected to see Clarke work for QMS until the middle of next year, seeing him involved in another major changeover which will see SAOS take over the contract for assessment and certification of the assurance scheme.
“This will allow a closer focus on sustainability and animal welfare – and these areas are going to be key in making sure we are able to deliver what consumers will be looking for in the future,” said Clarke.
So, is it to be pastures new or out to grass for Clarke? Recently turned 60, he said that with a new ten year strategy for QMS now approved, moving on now will allow him time for one more challenge – a self-employed venture – before actually retiring.
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