Producers sign up on sustainable beef

Participants in the McDonald’s Canada verified beef program commit to specified management practices

EDMONTON — Producers questioned what McDonald’s really meant when it announced last year that it wants beef from sustainable operations.

A list of expectations has now been developed that isn’t as onerous or demanding as first expected, say two Alberta beef producers.

Their operations participated in the pilot verification program, and they shared their experiences at the Livestock Gentec annual meeting in Edmonton Oct. 13.

The Chattaway family of Nanton accepts that consumers want more information about their food.

“I don’t think there is going to be an end to that. They will want to know more and more. We were quite happy to oblige them,” said Morgan Chattaway, a partner in the family owned Bar S Ranch, which runs 1,000 cows on a 100-year-old spread.

“We are proud of our operation and we are not afraid to let people see it.”

The ranch was already involved in the on-farm food safety program, called verified beef production, and it has been recognized for its environmental stewardship.

It was scored on a variety of farm practices, from animal husbandry to care of the land, and just recently received the score card.

“You learn from it and you become better,” Chattaway said.

Feedlot operator Stuart Thiessen of Namaka Farms was a grudging participant.

Members of the large family feedlot and grain farm near Strathmore, Alta., debated whether to participate. They understand the concerns that consumers have, but Thiessen wondered whether anyone is willing to pay more because there are added costs.

“I am still struggling with how McDonald’s will get there without some sort of incentive, but we will see how this works over time,” he said.

McDonald’s contracted verifiers from a company called Where Food Comes From. Thiessen found them knowledgeable with reasonable expectations.

“The biggest benefit in working with McDonald’s is they are going to give us a voice to communicate it to the public,” said Thiesen.

“The agriculture industry does not have the budget to communicate and we are not adept at those 15 second sound bytes that hang out there.”

He does worry that implementing the changes could add to the cost of production or eventually become regulated practices. In an effort to please beef buyers, the industry may commit to practices that are beyond what they can do realistically, he added.

“I don’t think all consumers are asking for a higher level of sus-tainability. Could we inadvertently price ourselves out of the market?” he said.

The concept is still a work in progress, said Jeff Fitzpatrick-Stillwell, manager for sustainability at McDonald’s Canada.

The goal is to start buying a percentage of verified beef by next year, and the corporation wants a global policy based on the Canadian model by 2020.

It buys 67 million pounds of beef a year, which gives it some clout.

“We are viewed as a burger company, although globally we sell more chicken than beef,” Fitzpatrick-Stillwell said.

“We want to continue to sell more beef and buy more Canadian beef, so we need it to be sustainable.”

The corporation is also looking at the next generation of customers, who have different attitudes and spending habits. Young urban residents born between 1980-95 are driving markets. They know nothing about farming but have firm ideas about what they want, which can affect agriculture’s social licence to operate.

“None of them grew up on the farm,” he said.

“There is that big disconnect that people have not only with farming in general but modern agriculture practices.”

The pilot project is intended to help understand how to measure, verify and communicate to consumers the sustainability of beef production in Canada.

It will align with the Canadian roundtable on sustainable beef production’s principles, which focus on :

  • natural resources
  • community and people
  • animal health and welfare
  • food
  • efficiency and innovation

The verification process is based on results. For example, the process may ask how animals are protected in extreme weather but does not say how it should be done.

So far, 165 participants from cow-calf producers to processors have joined, and 37 full verifications have been done.

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