National beef verification program urged

Programs are inconsistent across the country with different eligibility requirements and funding, so retailers are slow to sign on

PENTICTON, B.C. — More food companies are demanding higher quality assurance standards, which means beef producers need to get on board.

“We have two choices: they can define how we do it or we can work with them,” said Andrea Brocklebank, head of the Beef Cattle Research Council, which provides funding and support for the verified beef production program.

This program covers on-farm food safety, animal welfare, environmental stewardship and biosecurity. The newest version will be released June 15, she said at the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting, which was held in Penticton May 26-28.

The initiative has been around for some time and ideally it should grow into a national standards program.

“I think it will become, at some point, as important as beef grading,” said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

He hopes buyers will think of Canadian beef first when more verified supply is offered to the international market.

Many producers have been trained, but few have been audited to receive verification. As well, each province funds and delivers the program differently.

“VBP has been compartmentalized province by province,” Laycraft said at the B.C. meeting.

The program offers standard operating procedures that are documented, and a quality assurance label could eventually be applied.

Brocklebank said no end users are asking for it.

“We have to have a national program that is consistently delivered across this country before we expect any of our major retailers or end users to sign on,” she said.

A long-term business plan and strategy have been developed, but it is up to the provinces to help fund it and train and verify producers.

“The incentives from government are going to come and go,” Brocklebank said.

“We know these programs change, and they are very inconsistent across the provinces.”

B.C.’s on-farm food safety fund is open to all commodities.

“They have manipulated the requirements for that almost every year since it began in 2005,” said Annette Moore, the province’s co-ordinator for verified beef.

Eligibility requirements for money changed over the years, and funding limits and short deadlines often discouraged participation. Consequently, applications to join the verified beef program fell, she said.

More than 1,000 B.C. producers have been trained, but only about 130 were verified.

The BCCA received funding from Growing Forward 2, but it ran out. Support is now coming from a three year project offering $30,000 a year supplemented with funds from the Beef Cattle Industry Development Fund.

Registered producers pay an annual registration fee of $100, which contributes to operating costs, said Hallie McDonald of the BCCA.

Producers need to be convinced of the value of these programs. They will not receive premiums, but they will need verification labels in the future to show consumers the food was produced ethically.

It is possible to link producers and processors together for specific programs as more people are trained and audited. Information can be linked to a verified operation when the electronic ear tag is read at the processing plant. Cattle could then be sorted to fit different programs.

Labelled quality assurance programs are common and already cover pork, dairy, seafood, forestry and palm oil.

“Labels sell, and unfortunately, science is not necessarily represented on those labels,” said Brocklebank.

Subway wants no antibiotics in its meat supplies, A & W Restaurant has a campaign to offer beef free of antibiotics and added hormone, and the Earls Restaurants chain wants certified humane production from its beef suppliers. It requires the trademark guaranteeing the product was raised humanely.

Earls’ announcement was em-broiled in controversy because the branded product came from the United States. A social media maelstrom prompted the company to retract, and it said it would try to source some Canadian beef. However, it is not willing to move away from the label that verifies humane production.

Production assurances are growing in importance, but the Earls situation showed consumers are willing to speak up.

“Not all consumers are convinced by current labels,” Brocklebank said.

“There is a realm of consumers who want production assurances, but Earls demonstrated that they want to be assured animals are being taken care of but they want to support Canadian beef producers.”

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