It might sound obvious, but trade is now fully global. We can order, purchase and receive goods faster and from a wider range of sources than ever before. Suppliers are finding that customers are more demanding, while consumers seek assurances that products and services match the claims made about them.
Rick Stein will think nothing of ordering honey from Scotland or pheasant from Kent for his pot, and expect them to arrive at his doorstep the next day thanks to the wonders of the internet.
Go into a supermarket and you will be presented with a maelstrom of logos and stickers as far as the eye can see, all promising that a product is farm reared or naturally brewed or fully traceable or wheat free or free range or some other enticing 'mot du jour' to draw you in.
But, how to tell which accreditations are the real deal? They may all be. So then which you should you pick? The real 'mot du jour' should be 'caveat emptor', or before this starts to sound like a French or Latin lesson, let the buyer beware...
We all know British-grown food suffered a major setback with the onset of BSE in the late 90s. Since then, and with the emergence of organic, Fairtrade and the 'five-a-day' fruit and veg mantra, it has become more fashionable to know exactly where and how the food we eat is sourced.
This has led to pressure on the foodservice sector to supply certified products to their increasingly savvy (some would say fussy) consumers.
Take perhaps the most ubiquitous of British accreditations the Assured Food Standards' Red Tractor (www.redtractor. org.uk). It has become a vital tool for the whole supply chain, communicating to those consumers who demand to know "the rigorous, independently inspected standards, which our products are subject to at all critical points of the food chain," according to AFS chief David Clarke. The standard was set up to establish and sustain public confidence in the way that food is produced.
Farmers and growers are inspected by qualified independent inspectors who check all aspects of the production process from animal movements to housing, feed, animal health and welfare, and the way they care for the countryside.
"The Red Tractor helps you recognise produce that has come from farms that meet the strict requirements of the British Farm Standard," says Clarke.
But according to Compassion In World Farming (www.ciwf.org.uk) the Red Tractor scheme falls short on animal welfare standards.
"When we examined the Red Tractor scheme for animal welfare we were shocked," claims the organisation on its website. "On average, out of 15 basic welfare measures, the Red Tractor supported less than six of them."
Sir John Krebs, chair of the Food Standards Agency, opines that the UK's many assurance schemes, while potentially a force for good in driving up production standards, need a thorough shake-up. "Most people are thoroughly confused about assurance schemes," he says. "The number of different schemes and their various logos adds to the confusion." Many consumers find it tough to discern whether an accreditation is to do with country of origin, better standards of production, or better quality food. Sir John champions independent schemes as a way of improving consumer confidence.
CIWF claims the industry-led Red Tractor scheme includes animal welfare by implication but does not necessarily make it a priority, unlike the Soil Association's Certified Organic Standard for which high standards of farm welfare are fundamental. The Soil Association was formed in 1946 by a group of farmers and scientists as an alternative to intensive farming, so its credentials are pretty solid. Over the years it has become the UK's leading certificatory body for organic food and farming. In its mantra it aims to challenge chemical-based, intensive agriculture and champion local and organic sustainable production instead. Its symbol can now be found on over 70% of Britain's organic produce, standards it enforces through regular inspections of producers, processors and suppliers.
The conclusion? Don't just assume a scheme means something - get to know what it stands for before you judge it.