THERE are many reasons why clear labels on our food and drink matter. They help us to make choices about the quality of food we are buying, and shows how far it has travelled to get to our plates – along with decisions about the kind of animal welfare and environmental standards we want to support.

The Scottish Beef Association (SBA) is increasingly concerned that food labelling is not fit for purpose and is allowing meat from other nations to come onto our tables “through the back door”.

“It is no wonder the customer is confused when you look at the current jumble of labelling. Country of origin, Scottish, British, and Red Tractor are plastered all over the packaging but there is little clarity about what these really mean,” says David Barron, an Aberdeenshire beef farmer and SBA chairman. He is one of a growing number of farmers concerned about the “smoke and mirrors” around food labelling, undermining the work which goes into Scottish farming.

“Scotch Beef PGI [Protected Geographic Indicator – the future of this important status is threatened by Brexit] is clear in that the animal has to be born, reared, and killed in Scotland. Red Tractor is far less stringent – livestock only have to be on a Red Tractor farm for the last 90 days of their lives. Then we have the use of fictitious names, such as ‘Boswell Farms’ in Tesco,” Barron adds.

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It is not hard to understand why Scotland’s farmers are fighting for clear food labelling. The Scottish Farm Assured scheme was the first of its kind in the world, and is recognised as being an industry exemplar. This full-life traceability is our standard, so it might be understandable that some, perhaps, fail to realise just how special and important it is. Across the Far East, where food safety failures can have catastrophic consequences, Scotland’s Farm Assured Scotch beef is highly prized.

During the horse meat scandal, which saw counterfeit meat end up on our supermarket shelves, the certainty provided by the Scotch brand saw an uptake in people choosing Scottish produce. Brexit trade deals mean our shop shelves could fill with meats of a lower standard than was allowed when we were part of the EU – and the chances are, we won’t even know it’s there, because as soon as meat is processed, place of origin rules change again.

“Once you add a dash of salt and pepper to a piece of beef, once you mince it or put it in a sauce, the provenance no longer has to be declared,” Barron says. “The whole labelling scheme has become a farce. Customers back local produce but for that continue, they have to know what they are buying.”

Stephen Hendry is head of labelling, standards and regulated products at Food Standards Scotland (FSS). He says: “FSS’s role is to help consumers in Scotland to make informed choices about what they buy and ensure that food is labelled and described accurately.

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“Concerns have been raised with FSS about the clarity of country of origin labelling on meat and processed meat products and how these foods are presented in store. We’re considering how best to encourage businesses to provide clearer information for consumers.”

Food labelling is reserved to Westminster, so the Scottish Government can’t force supermarkets to label food and drink more clearly, but we cast a ballot every time we open our purses. Many of us have little choice in the produce we buy, either because of availability or because of price.

Using the freepost address to send clean packaging back to supermarket customer service departments, along with a letter explaining why we think they should do more to support Scotland’s farmers, sends a strong message of support.

It’s not about flags on food, it’s about keeping good food on our shelves. Food security is national security.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign