Laura Stewart

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Following the discovery of horsemeat in school food, the director of Soil Association Scotland talks about the equine scandal, the importance of the Food for Life Catering Mark and what her last supper would be. Interview by Emma Seith. Photography by James Glossop

What brought you to the Scottish Parliament today?

It was to meet Alison Johnstone, a Green MSP who put forward a motion that the Food for Life Catering Mark is something that should be adopted much more widely.

Tell us about the catering mark.

There are three tiers: bronze, silver and gold. At bronze, we are asking for things like UK animal welfare standards as minimum, cage-free eggs, no additives, for water to be freely available, and for 75 per cent of food to be freshly prepared from scratch. Silver and gold is a points-based system around three areas: healthy eating; sourcing more ethical food - fair trade, organic; and local sourcing. There are opportunities to change the standards so they evolve over time. There have been consultations recently, looking at whether we should move to free-range eggs as a minimum and looking at cook-freeze. There are arguments that food produced that way can be better than the hub kitchen model. Glasgow uses a cook-freeze model, so it couldn't go for the mark just now. But obviously we wouldn't want meals prepared in Wales and shipped to Scotland.

How widely would you like to see the mark adopted?

We are working with about half of local authorities in Scotland to help them move towards the mark, but it would be great if all local authorities were offering at least bronze to all their children. So that's not just primary schools, where one in seven has the Food for Life Catering Mark, but secondaries as well.

How many councils have the mark?

Four authorities have the catering mark for all their primary schools and North Ayrshire has just achieved gold. They also have Arran High certified, so that's our first high school in Scotland, which is really exciting. So when I say we are working with half of local authorities, the others are working towards the mark.

Why aren't more secondary schools qualifying for the mark?

Secondary is very difficult, because the students have much more choice. What's interesting is where you have examples of maybe keeping students in school during the first few years of secondary. It wouldn't be fair to shut the gates if they were not being offered a nice choice and good food, but if that's in place, why not?

Have you had more interest in the mark as a result of the horsemeat scandal?

There has been a huge interest because of horsemeat; it has shaken our trust in the food system. With the catering mark, one aspect is to make sure all meat has UK animal welfare standards as a minimum, which means good, strong traceability.

Are you part of the expert group looking into what can be learned from the horsemeat scandal?

No, which is a shame - we should be on it.

What do you hope can be learned from the crisis?

We need to look at the food system as a whole, going way beyond public sector catering, and re-evaluate what we want from food and food systems, and the relationship between the producers, suppliers and retailers.

Were you surprised when the horsemeat scandal came to light?

You never like to see these things happening, but when you get long, unwieldy supply chains, and there is a lack of transparency about where the food is coming from, then it's not really surprising. We need to work to make supply chains shorter and build closer links with local producers.

Can you give us some idea of that journey from pasture to plate for a school meal outside the catering mark?

There are good stats to show public sector procurement is buying more Scottish. But especially for things like chickens, which are expensive to produce, and where price is a highly weighted factor, it's often cheaper to bring in chicken from Thailand or the Far East. It would be great if we could make sure chicken produced to the UK welfare standards was on menus.

Does money lie at the heart of all this?

Often it's just about a mindset shift. It might be that you have better-quality meat, less often.

Is eating meat sustainable?

I'm very much an omnivore, but I'm very careful about which meat I choose.

How good are Scottish school meals?

We've got some that are amazing, but others might be further away. We're here to help anybody who has got an interest in moving towards the catering mark.

How long does it usually take to achieve?

Some authorities can take a year to adjust the menus and the sourcing patterns, but then North Ayrshire did it in four months and got gold. East Ayrshire started with one school, got it to gold and built out. In Fife, we're getting a high school and cluster of primaries to gold quite quickly and the learning from that will be spread.

What does the future hold?

We are looking for more support from the government and elsewhere to try to ramp up what we do around food education, to connect what is happening in the dinner hall to what is happening in the classrooms. I'm looking to create a post for an education manager.

What would your last supper be?

I'm a traditionalist - probably organic mince and tatties.

Personal profile

Born: Edinburgh, 1979, and raised on a small, mixed farm outside Ednam in the Borders

Education: Kelso High, Borders; University of Edinburgh, geography

Career: First six years of career spent in charge of UK food service strategy at the Marine Stewardship Council, which has a standard for sustainable fishing and an eco label. Then joined the Soil Association as head of Scotland in 2011, becoming director of the Soil Association Scotland in 2012.

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