B.C. examines cattle handling changes

British Columbia retailers charge consumers a premium for antibiotic and hormone-free beef  |  File photo

Reviving beef in British Columbia | Survey shows consumers want antibiotic and hormone-free beef, will pay for organic

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Building a local market for hormone and antibiotic-free beef could be one way to rebuild British Columbia’s declining cattle community.

An extensive study showed a third of B.C. consumers would be willing to buy and pay more for beef that was never treated.

The British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association commissioned the analysis and plans to get further funding to build a B.C. specific program that gives consumers what they want without making it too onerous for producers.

In the last five years, the B.C. beef herd has dropped to 164,000 from 248,000 cows. Producer numbers have dropped to about 4,000 from 7,000 ranchers.

The study found ranchers could capitalize on common production practices where cattle are commonly raised on grass in the mountain ranges.

“We feel the greatest opportunity is around producing products that are free of antibiotics or hormones,” said consultant Glenn Brand at the association’s annual meeting in Fort St. John May 30-June 1.

His research from surveys and focus groups showed 30 percent of the market is willing to pay 25 percent more for beef free of added substances.

Some focus group members said they cut back on beef because of health or nutrition concerns. When they found beef in a program that met their needs, they bought more.

“We think there is an opportunity in B.C. where you’ve got a significant portion of your consumers who are light users,” he said.

B.C. has about 4.6 million people and more than half live in the lower mainland in the Vancouver area. They tend to eat less beef than the rest of Canada. There is also a large Asian community with specific food interests.

The B.C. market is also integrated with Washington and Oregon where consumer values tend to be similar. That expands the B.C. beef market potential to 15 million people.

The research looked at programs that offered hormone or antibiotic-free, grainfed, grassfed, organic, environmental sustainability, tenderness guarantees, animal welfare guarantees and traceability.

Three-quarters of the Canadians surveyed and 59 percent of Americans said they would pay more for certain attributes. Canadians also said they preferred grown in B.C. product while the Americans said they were interested in products from the Pacific Northwest region.

Many consumers said they would be willing to pay more for organic but did not know what that meant.

“Most really had no idea what the production protocols or specifications for an organic program would look like,” said Brand.

Traceability did not interest consumers as much. They wanted to know how the animal was raised and fed rather than where the producer came from.

Finding branded beef products that meet specific production criteria are easier in the United States.

About 62 percent of beef in Canada sells under a branded program. In Western Canada, it is often a store brand, a packer brand like Sterling Silver or certified Angus.

The overwhelming focus is on eating quality.

Loblaws, through some of its Superstores, offers an antibiotic and hormone free beef but it is not widely available. They found generic lean ground beef sold for $7.68 per kilogram while the free of substances ground product was listed at $12.48 per kg.

Much of that product is American because the chain said it cannot find enough Canadian supply.

Smaller retailers stocked more beef certified as organic or free from antibiotics and hormones.

“It is interesting the bigger guys are having trouble putting together supply for these programs, yet some of the smaller chains are able to do it,” said Brand.

Canada also faces labelling issues for those who want to sell natural beef.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows natural or naturally-raised claims for products that received minimal human intervention, such as wild products like fish or fowl.

The Canadian Meat Council has raised this issue with the CFIA and it has promised revised guidelines this year.

Convincing producers to participate in these kinds of programs includes a caveat where they must make money and find a processor to handle a niche market.

“It is going to need to be economically viable and the premiums are going to have to be sufficient enough,” said Brand.

Packers like Cargill Meats and XL Foods have their own corporate marketing strategies and it is difficult for them to jump into a niche market. However, Agri-Beef in Washington and Canadian Premium Meats at Lacombe, Alta., can handle custom fabrication orders.

There are also 23 provincial plants eager to get into a retail chain but stores are reluctant to deal with them. National retailers want beef processed in federally inspected facilities.

John Church, beef research chair at Thompson Rivers University at Kamloops where grassfed beef research has been ongoing, said the study was compelling and markets have potential.

A retail meat-processing store at the university sells antibiotic and hormone-free as well as grassfed products.

“We find we get premiums for both,” he said.

However, it costs more to finish cattle to market weight on grass so ranchers would need assurances of a payback.

He later suggested a marketing plan could be built around selling ground beef at a premium that came from a grass feeding program. Thompson Rivers and other universities have also detected beneficial levels of omega-3 and six fatty acids in the beef.

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