The UK’s largest food and farming assurance scheme has been working with certification bodies to come up with an innovative solution which would allow audits to continue without the need for assessors to travel to farms.

Red Tractor is preparing to roll-out ‘live-streamed’ farm audits – meeting UKAS requirements – to enable new applicants to be assessed and current members to retain their status throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

In doing so, Red Tractor has become the first major assurance scheme in the sector to include fully-remote assessments in its inspection regime.

All physical assessments were halted last month, in accordance with government advice on social distancing and non-essential travel.

‘Virtual eyes’

Red Tractor chief executive Jim Moseley said: ‘Members around the UK have shown great resilience and resourcefulness in recent weeks to keep the supply of great British food moving from farms to shops.

‘However, the public and our members expect us to maintain the integrity of the Red Tractor scheme, even during this challenging time.

As a world-leading assurance scheme, it was important that we developed a remote assessment option, which isn’t burdensome for our members but underpins our mantra – that adhering to the standards isn’t merely an option, it is a necessity – it’s every standard, every day.

Unlike other approaches, Red Tractor’s remote regime is sufficiently robust to replace the routine inspection through this period where physical inspections can’t be made, thereby avoiding a backlog in inspections.

The assurance scheme utilises its own online portal to enable farms to upload their documents and records and has run a series of pilots using live-streaming technology across all the sectors the scheme covers to allow assessors to have ‘virtual eyes’ on the farm.

The next phase of the development will be the scaling-up of pilots to stress test the new protocol, in order for Red Tractor to address any issues.

More than 150 farmers have expressed an interest in being a part of this next stage of the roll-out, citing the benefits of an assessment protocol which is more modern and the use of accessible technology as key.

From this week, under the new remote assessment programme, farms which are due their assurance assessment, or new applicants, can either opt for an offline pre-assessment, followed by a live stream partial assessment using video calling or online meeting software such as WhatsApp, Blue Jeans, Zoom. Members must send documentation to their assessor in advance, via Red Tractor’s portal or other secure file transfer site, to complete the offline pre-assessment.

A video call will follow at an appropriate time, allowing assessors to carry out the visual assessment of the member’s site without needing to attend in person.

Alternatively, members can opt to have the entire assessment, with all document reviews and inspections taking place, via a video call with an assessor.

Farmers who have successful remote assessments during this phase, will not be required to have an additional physical assessment outside of their normal audit cycle.

Jim Moseley added: “Whilst some farmers may be daunted at the prospect of a remote assessment, those that have trialled the approach see huge benefits and many believe this could herald another approach to auditing long after the impact of Covid-19.

We understand that this new approach will take time to bed in, but we are committed to working with our members and certification bodies to make sure remote assessments are as straightforward as possible.

Members will be contacted by their certification body in due course to discuss the options available to them.

Red Tractor’s simple guide to remote assessments can be found on YouTube here.

More information on Red Tractor’s advice for members during the Covid-19 pandemic can be found on the Red Tractor Covid-19 webpage.