Given that QAS membership is an integral part of the beef price structure and considering our sales of cattle were on-going, I obviously felt we needed to get back into the scheme as quickly as possible. So I contacted someone I know in Bord Bia who explained the process to me, as follows.
The inspector's report goes before an audit committee and it is the audit committee who decides whether you are in or out. So he suggested that if we could re-organise the records in the manner required and get them on the desk of the relevant person in the audit committee before their next meeting, on January 7, our position might be looked on favourably.
On this advice we decided that not alone would we totally upgrade our records but we would put them on our farm computer package. We worked at it throughout Christmas spending many hours on the computer and on January 4 we posted 69 pages of veterinary records plus animal prescriptions to Bord Bia.
I don't know whether this information was taken into account or not by the audit committee but, on January 7, we were suspended from the QAS with immediate effect. We subsequently got a letter from Bord Bia advising us of our suspension.
This letter also advises "if you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact Bord Bia" but does not give any contact details.
The reasons why we were deemed to be non-compliant were listed on the back of the letter.
But by the time that the audit committee met all the information which they required from us was in their possession.
As I write this, I am looking back through the correspondence from previous inspections and they all look pretty much the same. It is only when I scrutinised the small print on the back that I realised the letter from our previous inspection before this one, in August 2015, did indicate - under the 'Areas for Improvement' heading - that our veterinary records were not up to scratch.
If it had been made clear to us that this was a major issue, then we would, of course, have taken immediate action to rectify it. If the letter from last August was a warning then it should have been clearly flagged as such.
I then spoke on the phone to someone in the relevant section in Bord Bia and I have to say that I was shocked by his attitude. He had no interest in the fact that we had furnished our updated records. As far as he was concerned, I was non-compliant, it was their scheme and I could apply to be re-audited after six months. I explained that the loss of the QA payment was surely enough and that excluding us for six months was a double penalty.
We decided to write a letter to the head of the relevant section, asking for an early re-audit. This took place on January 28 and we have since been re-certified.
Ireland is a small country and lots of people heard of our suspension. The one thing I noticed from the large number of farmers who contacted us is the serious level of dissatisfaction that beef farmers have with Bord Bia.
A couple points kept coming up. One is the feeling among farmers that Bord Bia is too close to the industry.
Also, it's all very fine to announce the opening of new markets but where is the follow-up in terms of actual beef sales to, for example, the US and China? The Minister has told us the US is a €100m market, but less that €13m worth of Irish beef was exported there last year.
As for the QAS itself, I strongly believe that, not only do we need Quality Assurance but we need one that's better than the scheme in any other country. However, it needs to be a scheme that farmers will buy into and, to do so, has to have a core of common sense. Instead, there is a view out there the current scheme is overly pedantic.
One example is the requirement that the Health and Safety statement be readily accessible in the yard. Where?
If you put it in the workshop, that's locked. Put it in the veterinary cupboard and that's locked too. Anywhere else in the yard it will get damp. Surely the farm office is the best place for it?
This is one of the things we were pulled up on even though there are four warning signs in the yard with two specifically referencing the health and safety statement.
One gives a contact number and informs the visitor to call that number or call to the house to view the statement before entering the farm.
Bord Bia and the QAS need to go back to the drawing board if they are to regain farmers' confidence.
Robin Talbot farms in partnership with his mother Pam and wife Ann in Ballacolla, Co Laois.
BORD BIA RESPOND...
As noted in Robin's article, Bord Bia's Beef and Lamb Quality Assurance Scheme (BLQAS) is critical to enabling the industry's continued access to premium markets around the world. Critical to its success in turn is that it be operated to recognised international standards and accredited accordingly. Such accreditation dictates that the scheme be set out and operated in a highly prescriptive manner, a manner that some may unfortunately perceive as 'pedantic'. There is no alternative.
Approximately 37,000 audits are conducted each year and the high standards of beef farming in Ireland are reflected in the high compliance rate, whereby approximately 93pc of beef farmers pass the audit. The small minority found not to be in full compliance typically arises because of issues around poor administration and animal remedy record keeping, irrespective of what might otherwise be regarded as exceptional animal husbandry and production standards. Notwithstanding the requirements of the Bord Bia scheme, these records are also required by law.
During a Bord Bia audit, poor record keeping is noted as an 'Area For Improvement' (AFI). Where this issue is not addressed despite written warnings and successive audits, then, and only then, is a spot audit triggered.
Albeit described as a 'spot audit', farmers are contacted by phone 48 hours ahead of the audit taking place.
The current rules of the BLQAS require that when a non-compliance against one or more requirement of the standard is found on the day of the audit, the auditee cannot be considered for certification without adequately addressing the issue and undergoing a full re-audit. Submission of any material after the audit may not be considered in the certification process but may help the case for a re-audit being undertaken within the six months normally prescribed after the withdrawal of certification.
Bord Bia would be remiss in its duty to all compliant farmers and to Irish consumers if the rules of the scheme are not operated to the highest standards or compromised or undermined in any way.
The BLQAS is developed and approved by a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) made up of all relevant stakeholder groups. A revision to the current scheme is at an advanced stage and includes consideration to a 'close-out' model. This model, as successfully operated in the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme would provide beef farmers a period of time, while retaining certification, to provide evidence to show that they have addressed the issue.