The blunt chief of Scottish Food Quality Certification ruffled a few feathers at Scotcrop

YORKSHIREMAN Peter Hepworth lived up to his home county's reputation for blunt speaking when he participated in the NatWest bank seminar at last week's Scotcrop event.

He dismissed quality assurance schemes for cereals as stupid, mad and unnecessary, well-aware that at least half the cereal farmers in Scotland were already signed up.

By way of preparation, he assured his audience he would not be asking them if they had spent the earlier part of their day undertaking a sparrow count or any of the other ''environmental moonshine'' farmers were getting swept up with.

Just an old-fashioned son of the soil, obviously.

He spelled out his own farming goals in fairly simple terms - that was to achieve a big wheat crop he could be proud of.

He had no truck with people who sought to put obstacles in his way, especially the likes of NFU president Sir David Naish, now advocating quality assurance.

It was all hard-hitting stuff, particularly at an audience which has been exhorted and encouraged over these past few months to sign up with Scottish Quality Cereals or face the prospect of having to accept lower prices and marketing problems.

I have to report, however, that Mr Hepworth was in no danger of being run out of town. His remarks struck a chord with many in the audience and he even won a burst of spontaneous applause at one point.

His reputation had preceded him for he drew the largest audience of the morning, standing room only.

He is obviously well-known to Scottish Quality Cereals chairman David Jack, who described him as ''that comedian'' before going on to de-nounce his ''Luddite'' views.

The basic difference between the two is that David Jack believes the market is demanding quality assurance and Peter Hepworth dismisses that assertion as ''bunkum''.

I believe time will prove the argument to be tilted in David Jack's favour. Farmers, he says, must come to terms with the fact that they are in the food business and people are increasingly interested in how their food is produced.

Some farmers may not believe that, but they would be wise to note the remarks of our new Scottish Agriculture Minister Lord Sewel at the Royal Highland Show. He dislikes solo reference to the agriculture industry. In his view, the two should always be linked - agriculture and food.

The BSE crisis has focused public attention on how beef is produced, and interest has not halted there. There is much more concern about general farming practices, including the use of chemicals on arable crops. The National Farmers' Union of Scotland, among others, has been preaching the quality assurance message. It is too late to try to put the genie back in the bottle, even if anyone wanted to.

The supermarkets are fairly good judges of what the public wants. They would not be putting their money behind quality assurance schemes and drawing up their own specifications, if they believed the issue was unimportant.

Mr Hepworth, to be fair to him, is prepared to make an exception in the case of beef because he accepts that BSE represented a real crisis.

However, that smacks of being prepared to take action only under duress.

Much better, in the present circumstances, to be seen to be in the vanguard of the move to raise standards.

Most consumers probably do take comfort from the farm assurance message.

Having set up a number of quality assurance schemes, the industry must ensure that the rules are strictly adhered to. If laxity is allowed to creep into the system it is doubly unfair - to the public which has come to regard farm assurance as a safeguard and to those farmers who take their responsibilities seriously and adhere strictly to the regulations. Scotland is ahead of the game in assurance schemes and would be foolish to concede that advantage by any failure to apply appropriate disciplines.

Therein may lie the difficulty for many farmers. Farming can be a solitary profession, with individuals developing their own way of working which suits their temperament and their enterprise. It cannot be easy at times to take direction and to have outsiders beginning to recommend a particular feeding regime or to dictate what pesticides and fungicides may or may not be used on a crop.

However, we all live in a much more regulated world. Surgeons are no longer allowed to wear street clothes in the operating theatre. Libel laws and codes of practice affect the way journalists do their job. Even lollipop men are told they dare not show affection for the youngsters they see safely across the road.

Restrictions are a way of life and farming cannot claim to be exempt.

So it would seem most wise for us to rejoice with the supervising body for our assurance schemes - Scottish Food Quality Certification - on being the first to have its standards endorsed by the European Commission.

The company was launched in 1994 and has since then certified more than 10,000 farms and food companies covered by the five schemes it manages - SQBLA Farm Assurance, Scottish Quality Cereals, the Guild of Scotch Quality Meat Suppliers, the Scottish Pig Industry Initiative, and Scottish Quality Trout.

When the McDonald's beefburger chain is returning to British beef and the Government is talking seriously about a computerised data base for cattle, we should be flexing our muscles to take advantage of all opportunities to drive home the quality assurance message - not casting doubt on the concept.