“The scheme was formally launched in 1992 with over 1000 participants and 100k cattle assured at that time,” he said.
“It was initially developed to underpin the marketing and improve understanding of the qualities of Northern Irish beef being sold under the Greenfields brand in the Netherlands by the Heijn Group.”
Ian continued: “One of the main aims from the very outset was to demonstrate the naturalness of the product on sale.
“FQAS has been designed to assure consumers of good production methods being used and good quality of care of animals and the environment in the production of beef and lamb which is wholesome, safe and free from unnatural substances.
“These priorities have remained fundamental to the evolution of the scheme over the past three decades.”
FQAS is owned and managed by LMC on behalf of the beef and sheep meat industry in Northern Ireland.
The FQAS Industry Board comprising membership from the main processing and farming groups in Northern Ireland advises LMC on the commercial management of the FQAS.
A separate Standard Setting Committee – comprising LMC, industry representatives and external specialists – continuously reviews and updates the standards and rules of the scheme.
Over the past 30 years, FQAS has constantly evolved to meet industry, customer and legislative requirements.
Ian Stevenson again: “In the initial years of scheme development farmers were incentivized by processors to participate in FQAS through the payment of additional bonuses.
“This approach was taken in order to increase the volume of beef that could be assured as part of the scheme.
“Driving all of this was the servicing of premium customers in Europe, who were paying some of the best prices available for beef from Northern Ireland at that time.”
However, the 1996 onset of the BSE crisis fundamentally changed the market outlets available for Northern Irish beef.
During the 10 years of export market restrictions, the UK retail and food service market became the new premium market for locally produced beef. This continues to be the case to this day with 80% of sales going into this market.
The LMC representative further explained: “Northern Ireland’s beef and lamb processors have successfully built up their reputation and scale of their business with all of the main UK retail and food service businesses, including McDonald’s who are a major market outlet for beef forequarters and flanks.
“Currently, over £1.2bn of beef and lamb sales from Northern Ireland are now generated courtesy of UK customers.
“This level of business has been developed through Northern Ireland showing its ability to meet exacting customer specifications and service customer needs.
“Having a world-leading FQAS, that continually evolves to meet the specific needs of customers and those of the 12,000 farming and processing members who voluntarily participate in it, has been fundamental in making all of this happen.”
Over the years FQAS has evolved to become an ISO 17065 independently accredited quality assurance scheme.
Significantly, it is fully integrated with Northern Ireland’s world-leading livestock traceability system APHIS.
The scheme has also incorporated the ground-breaking ‘Food Fortress’ animal feed material testing initiative and is mutually recognized by Red Tractor, Quality Meat Scotland and Farm Assured Welsh Livestock.
Ian Stevenson commented: “Occasionally, some farmers will ask the question: what happened to the initial bonus for FQAS participation?
“The simple answer is that the premium now comes in the price you get from the ability to sell your beef and lamb to the best paying customers in the UK and EU markets.
“Without independently accredited assurance provided by FQAS, local farmers would be selling their produce in wholesale markets in direct competition with lower cost suppliers from around the world.”
Looking forward, driving improved sustainability within Northern Ireland’s beef and sheep sectors remains a key priority for LMC and its farming and processing stakeholders.
The Commission is centrally involved in the work to have Northern Ireland included as part of an application for protected geographical indication (PGI) for Irish Grass Fed Beef to be registered by the EU.
Provided such a registration can be reached, the capability of verifying that any producers of ‘Irish Grass Fed Beef’ within Northern Ireland meet the requirements that will be set out in the agreed amended PGI specification becomes an absolute necessity.
“And it is in this context that FQAS will contribute as a critically important platform for information gathering. This can be achieved by including several additional questions that can be addressed as part of an FQAS inspection process,” said Ian Stevenson
“Information gathering of this nature will also be critically important in determining the beef and sheep sectors’ response to climate change and the evolution of new farm support measures.
He concluded: “FQAS remains one of the most successful supply chain initiatives in the beef and lamb sector with the animal feed supply, farming, livestock haulage, livestock marts, slaughterhouses, processing plants, retailers and food service businesses all totally engaged in driving forward a premium and sustainable offering to discerning consumers of Northern Irish beef and lamb.
“LMC is extremely proud of FQAS and it remains an integral part of the marketing and communication of the qualities, credibility, story and unique selling points of our world leading beef and lamb.”