GM labelling, feed protocols pose challenge for bison sector

International markets | Industry questions how to guarantee GM-free feed

Bison producers may have to be concerned about GM labelling after all.


The industry is facing demands for genetically modified food labelling from prominent retailer Whole Foods Market.


The grocery store chain announced earlier this year that all products in its North American stores must be labelled by 2018. Other retailers have also announced similar intentions.


The issue for bison producers lies in feed.


“We have to take a look at where we’re sourcing feed for our animals,” said Dave Carter of the National Bison Association based in Colorado.


There is no test for GM content in meat. For bison, the claim of GM-free will have to be based on feed, he said.


Marketers at the recent Canadian Bison Association annual convention said they don’t yet know how this will play out.


The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a recent trade deal between Canada and Europe, could be another reason for GM concern.


The trade deal could see more bison meat heading overseas, but Thomas Ackerman of Canadian Rangelands Bison and Elk said the European market is sensitive to the issue.


“If we have to tell them, we probably have to reconsider how we feed those bison to keep the market.”


He said a claim of forage-based diets won’t help if GM alfalfa is ever grown and fed to bison.


One producer at the meeting asked if a premium available might be available for bison that could be guaranteed GM-free.


Bob Dineen, chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Colorado, said not necessarily.


“There is some research that says labelling GMOs in other places in the world didn’t hurt sales at all,” he said. 


“People want to know, but they didn’t necessarily turn away from the product.”


David Hughes, professor emeritus of food marketing at Imperial College in London, England, said he isn’t sure the issue is going to remain so polarizing among consumers.


“If you go forward say 10 years, I see definite cracks in the wall,” he told the meeting. 


“Those who are most antagonistic are starting to say, ‘well, it might be all right under certain circumstances.’ ”


Those would include using GM crops for fuel or fibre, he added.


Hughes said there is increasing awareness that genetic modification within a species is more acceptable than between species, which will also alter the debate.


Carter said other issues affect bison markets as well.


The U.S. relies on Canada for 40 percent of its bison. If CETA moves supply to Europe, that could be a problem for at least the short term.


Consumers continue to raise animal welfare concerns in all livestock sectors.


“The challenging thing for us is a lot of consumers don’t know what humane treatment of animals really is,” Carter said.


He said animals have been humanized in people’s minds, but that doesn’t equate to humane treatment. The industry should continue to look at best practices.


The integrity of ranch-raised bison is still a huge issue.


“We’re seeing all of the nonsense out there about cattle genetics in bison and the implications that everybody’s got a Black Angus be-hind the barn that they’re putting on their animals, or ranched bison are being domesticated and becoming docile,” Carter said. 


“We need to stay in front of this.”


As well, the competition from grass-fed and organic beef is ever-present.


He said he likes to remind people when the bison industry is criticized for feed protocols that the gold standard in beef was corn-fed until five years ago.


“The thing the consumers don’t understand is that in the North American climate, it’s really difficult to get a year-round supply of grass-fed on a large scale. That’s why Costco is contracting 31 containers of (organic) trim from Uruguay.”

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