Time for the QMS board to reassert itself over levy scheme - Andrew Arbuckle

More than 50 years ago, a suggestion was made that Scottish farmers could help in the promotion of the lamb they produced. This radical suggestion caused some of the old traditionalists to swoon at the thought.

They pointed out they were producers of food not sales people and the thought of paying to help sell their produce was alien to them. One farmer, obviously shocked by the suggestion told Gordon Baxter of Baxters soup fame that it was Baxter’s job to sell what the farmers produced.

This attitude had grown in wartime when food was often either in short supply or on ration but by the 1960s when more meat was being produced it was, to use the wrong metaphor, a different kettle of fish.

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Despite the opposition from the conservative or ‘aye been’ wing of the farming industry, sufficient sheep producers were convinced that paying a levy to help sell their lamb was a good thing. It possibly helped that the levy was a princely one shilling or 5 pence per carcase. Thus, the Scottish Quality Lamb Association came into being.

It was not long in making a mark in the marketplace and cattle producers saw there could be an advantage to them as well if they did a bit of promoting the beef produced in this country and so the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association was formed.

Then in 1988, Maitland Mackie came in with the idea of Farm Assurance. Again, there was initial resistance from producers who thought their job was to produce animals and it was nobody else’s business how this was achieved but after initial opposition this latest scheme helped secure a market for Scottish produce and it was adopted.

Then Scottish red meat promotion received a major boost gaining PGI status from Europe. Again, this put Scottish red meat ahead of its opposition and helped exports; mainly to mainland Europe. It also created a premium for red meat produced north of the Border.

But sheep and cattle producers in other countries noticed this and set up their own quality schemes. Some stratagems went beyond the provenance of their meat adding in important factors such as eating quality.

QMS has not done so and that may be one factor in the current loss of the premium on Scottish red meat. It is possible that the loss of the premium is just “one of those things” but it comes at a mighty inconvenient time.

This is because in England meat producers are about to be asked if they want to continue paying a levy to their meat promotion body.

Several UK wide levy bodies such as the potato one have not survived this test of popularity or necessity and the question must be asked if English producers don’t want a red meat promotional body, where does that leave QMS?

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With a great deal of cross border trade already existing, we could have a situation where processors in England and Wales are subtracting a levy on some carcases and not on others. That might be possible when there is a premium on the levied carcases but not so when there is none.

In the past, sales of Scottish beef and lamb were made against a background of sheep grazing on the mountain tops and hairy cattle standing knee deep in lochans with the heather covered hills in the background.

Note the sales pitch was not based on the eating quality. That only came by secondary association with the Scottish scenery being used rather than a massive feedlot that characterizes beef production in other countries. In other words, we are selling the scenery not the eating quality or tenderness of the beef and lamb from this country

As one industry commentator observed recently beef produced in this country doesn’t have the same credentials as some in terms of tenderness assessments, breed or diet consistency, taste and texture awareness or even a guarantee that it is cut and processed within Scotland.

With more producers ducking out of the levy scheme it may be time for the QMS board to reassert itself at the forefront of red meat promotion just as their forefathers did half a century ago.

I hope that QMS directors with their appointments being dependent on the say so of the Scottish Government Minister have not become too domesticated.

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