But his suggestion that the reversal in numbers marked a turning point for the industry seemed a forlorn hope, given the recent collapse in the market for prime beef cattle.
Last week, both NFU Scotland and the Scottish Beef Association (SBA) warned of the consequences if the financial return to producers did not improve.
“Retailers have too much control of the market and producers are not getting a fair share of the retail price,” said SBA chairman, Scott Henderson. “We’re getting the worst price at a time of year when beef is at its most costly to produce.”
Commenting on cattle numbers, McNaughton said: “We’re not talking about a massive increase but we do seem to be moving in the right direction again.”
He admitted there was little sign of any improvement in the market and price deflation was continuing to restrict the opportunity for market growth, with the retail battle between traditional and discount supermarkets intensifying. Producers could do more to help themselves, he suggested, by delivering to the specification demanded by retail customers.
“Producers are always asking about getting a premium for their stock and then providing us with something which justifies an out-of-spec penalty,” he claimed. “Our message is to get the spec right and you’ll already be in premium territory.”
Turning to the export market, McNaughton called on the Scottish Government to keep clearing the way for Scotch beef, lamb and pork to be given access to new markets around the world.
“Seeing the first deliveries of Scotch beef and lamb into Canada in February, ending 20 years of exclusion from that market, was a boost for the whole industry.”
He also called on Food Standards Scotland (FSS), the organisation set up a year ago to take over the work of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Scotland, to adopt a more common-sense approach in the application of rules on ante-mortem inspection at abattoirs.
Communication with the industry was much improved under the FSA but abattoirs were less than happy with how some issues were being handled.
“A little common-sense would have enabled individual consignment of perfectly safe Scotch meat to have been released into the food chain rather than be declared as waste and destroyed,” he said. “Zero tolerance sounds good but all often results in the wrong decision being made rather than a pragmatic solution being found.”
FSS chief executive, Geoff Ogle, said common-sense was not the issue. “We can’t bend the rules,” he insisted. “It is not for us to decide which parts of the law we apply or don’t apply, even if we disagree with the law.
He urged the industry to adopt the same approach as New Zealand where no industry regulator was required because the culture of compliance was in-built to meet the demanding standards of the export market which took 90% of the food which the country produced.