Let the beef verification process begin

News Roundup from the October 26, 2015 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

McDonald’s chose Canada for its verified sustainable beef (VSB) pilot not only because it remains committed to serving 100 per cent Canadian beef from Canadian processors in its Canadian restaurants and wants to purchase a portion of its Canadian beef supply from VSB sources in 2016. The real reason the company chose Canada is because it already has an array of resources and programs in place to facilitate measuring, monitoring and communicating the multi-faceted elements of sustainable beef production.

McDonald’s has been at the forefront of the sustainability effort since 2009 as a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). It drew on all of those global and Canadian resources to develop a list of indicators of what constitutes “sustainable” beef at the cow-calf, feedlot and processor levels.

The finalized versions of the cow-calf and fed cattle indicators that verifiers will follow for the VSB pilot were released in time for the CRSB annual general meeting at the end of September.

Matt Sutton-Vermuelen

Matt Sutton-Vermuelen
photo: Supplied

By all reports, they were well received, says Matt Sutton-Vermeulen, senior partner with the Prasino Group that is co-ordinating the pilot for McDonald’s in collaboration with a broad base of Canadian industry stakeholders.

The project management team has also been hearing very positive responses from the 37 producers who have gone through pre-verification to test and refine the indicators while in development. Twenty-two producers are cued up and ready to go through the official verification, he says.

He would, however, definitely welcome more producer participation. Getting started is as easy as giving him a call (515-371-7914), emailing [email protected], or contacting him through the VSB pilot website, where you will find lots of background and detail about the pilot program, including the indicators and resource materials. Calling for information or to enrol doesn’t obligate participation.

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Participation is open to Canadian cow-calf producers with calves born on or after January 1, 2013, and/or backgrounders that supply cattle to Canadian feedlots, and Canadian feedlots that deliver to the Cargill High River and JBS Brooks plants any time during 2015 and before March 2016. Participants need to be trained or registered with Canada’s Verified Beef Production program, and registered or willing to register and share information through the Beef Information Exchange System (BIXS), which also serves to verify custody through the value chain. You must also be willing to follow through with an on-site verification.

Those who sign up will have the support of a team to help them prepare for the verification carried out by an independent third-party company, Where Food Comes From. The verifiers are experienced in beef production and knowledgeable about the Canadian beef industry and regional differences.

Verification consists of a constructive two-way conversation during which each indicator is scored through discussion, observations, records, documents and images. Where Food Comes From provides a report to participants and an opportunity to discuss the report.

Speaking at the Saskatchewan Stock Grow­ers Association conference earlier this summer, Sutton-Vermeulen, stressed this is a verification, not an audit. The purpose is to verify sustainable outcomes, with a focus on learning, continuous improvement and sharing information. Scoring is by levels rather than the pass-fail grades typical of audits, wherein the focus is on compliance with specific standards and practices. A video of his presentation is available at www.skstockgrowers.com.

McDonald’s is paying for up to 300 verifications through the pilot. This is an opportunity for participants to get a professional perspective on their operation, a confidential report to benchmark their performance against that of peers, and have a venue to share their sustainability story through McDonald’s communication network. More­over, producers’ leadership and performance will showcase the strength and sustainability of the Canadian beef industry in domestic and international markets.

At the end of the pilot in April 2016, McDonald’s will provide a report on the pilot at a workshop where participants and others from the broader agriculture and food sectors will have an opportunity to share information, experiences, insights, likes, dislikes, lessons learned and suggestions.

The information will be turned over to the CRSB to move forward with the goal of arriving at one process to define and verify sustainable beef production in Canada that can be used by all. McDonald’s will then compete with other restaurant operations on how well it meets the indicators laid out by the CRSB.

VSB pilot indicators and scoring

The indicators are outcome based looking for results as opposed to dictating certain practices to achieve compliance. Outcome-based indicators state the goals and leave it up to producers to decide how to meet them in ways best suited to their own situations.

The VSB pilot indicators are grouped according to five GRSB principles formalized last year: natural resources; community and people; animal health and welfare; food; and efficiency and innovation.

There are 31 sustainability indicators for cow-calf/extensive operations, 14 of which are designated as critical. Critical indicators are those with outcomes deemed critical to maintaining and enhancing the social licence of the Canadian beef industry.

Three of the five natural-resources indicators are designated as critical: water quality, sediment, nutrient run-off, ground­water and waterway health are responsibly managed; protects grasslands, tame pastures and native ecosystems including high-conservation-value areas (e.g. endangered species habitat); well-managed native habitat provides for wildlife and plant biodiversity.

Two of the seven community-and-people indicators are critical: ensure safe and healthy work environment; follow applic­able labour laws and regulations.

The beef industry’s beef cattle code of practice formed the foundation of the 11 animal health and welfare indicators, six of which are critical: nutritional needs of cattle are met through forage and/or feed supplementation; cattle have at-will access to a palatable, quality water source; demonstrates how animal health is measured and monitored; demonstrates judicious use of pharmaceuticals and/or vaccines in accordance with labelling and/or veterinary prescription; demonstrates use of clear decision points for euthanasia and acceptable methods of euthanasia; cattle in the breeding herd maintain an ideal body condition score based on their stage of production.

Both food indicators are critical: demonstrates how food safety and beef quality are assured (prerequisite to be VBP trained or registered); share information up and down the value chain (prerequisite to be registered in BIXS 2.0).

One of the six efficiency-and-innovation indicators is critical: demonstrate safe and responsible use of crop protection products and fertilizers (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizer) associated with non-row crops (hay).

There are 29 indicators for fed cattle/intensive operations, with the 11 critical indicators being the same as those for cow-calf operations with a modification to the nutrition indicator stating that the diet composition is balanced to promote good health. The fed-cattle indicators don’t include those pertaining to body condition score, grasslands and native habitat.

Each indicator is scored on its own:

  • A score of one indicates entry level, wherein the participant has awareness of and commitment to address the requirement.
  • A score of three indicates achievement, wherein the participant demonstrates performance toward goals.
  • A score of five indicates excellence, wherein procedures and processes are in place to measure, monitor, verify and report outcomes toward goals and continuous improvement is evident.

Score levels two and four are left open for flexibility to address combinations of the above.

Ongoing failure to take steps toward fulfilling the requirement is scored as a barrier to entry, but participants have 30 days to follow up by discussing the perceived barrier with the verifier or taking corrective action.

To be counted as contributing to McDonald’s purchases of VSB participants need to achieve a score of three or higher for each of the critical indicators and average three or higher for each of the five principles.

Developing the indicators

The VSB pilot advisory board members who contributed a great deal in the development of the indicators are: Fawn Jackson, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association; Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CRSB; Bob Lowe, Alberta Beef Producers; Page Stuart, Alberta Cattle Feeders Association; Jackie Wepruk, National Farm Animal Care Council; Susan Church, former AFAC GM, rancher; Melanie Agopian, Loblaw; Melinda German, Manitoba Beef Producers; Lauren Stone, Cargill Corporate Affairs; Nancy Labbe, World Wildlife Fund; William Burnidge, The Nature Conservancy; Julie Dawson, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada; John Basarab, Lacombe Research Centre/Alberta Agriculture; and Joe Stookey, University of Saskatchewan.

We were able to connect with a few of the members, who on very short notice, were willing to share their insights and thoughts on the process and resulting indicators.

“To me, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s main principles made a lot of sense — they talk about taking care of the planet, people, community growth and development and animal health. When McDonald’s said it wanted to create a verified sustainable beef program and it was going to follow the global roundtable’s principles, I knew it was serious about it,” says John Basarab, senior research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and adjunct professor at the universities of Alberta and Manitoba.

Feeling that the process to develop the indicators would indeed be science based and take the broad view by engaging people from across the board, from all sectors of the beef industry, consumer advocacy groups to animal welfare groups and environmental groups to go over indicators in each of the five areas, he felt confident that McDonald’s VSB pilot was about growing communities, not just supplying a retailer.

Open and challenging discussions among the advisory group members, each very proficient in his or her area of expertise, gave rise to what Basarab feels is a strong set of indicators for each principle.

The overall list might seem intimidating at first but on closer look, many of the indicators are already common practices within the beef production chain, he says.

“The beef industry and all ag sectors are trying to be sustainable in all ways. Livestock production has been part of humanity for a long time and we tweak it as we learn more and more about the science of health and how to use feed. Now we are bringing new technologies and genomics into the mix to improve feed efficiency, reduce cost and improve beef’s environmental footprint.

“To me, this is a more comprehensive, integrated look at a food production system than just saying ‘no antibiotics’, ‘no growth technologies’, or ‘no whatever.’ That, to me, is very short term and unsustainable,” Basarab says.

Jackie Wepruk

Jackie Wepruk
photo: Supplied

National Farm Animal Care Council general manager Jackie Wepruk also appreciates McDonald’s openness and willingness to integrate the feedback received from the diverse representation on the advisory board.

“While McDonald’s could have unilaterally established its verification indicators, it chose to embrace a growth mindset, seeking out and including insights from a broader knowledge base,” she explains.

The advisory committee started with a proposed list of indicators and the list grew from there. The beef cattle code of practice was the foundation for the animal care indicators, she says, adding that McDonald’s animal care expectations are consistent with Canada’s national understanding of beef cattle care requirements and recommended practices established through the beef code of practice.

Wepruk anticipates that the indicators and the process, including which indicators are designated as critical, will evolve over time and says producer participation will be important for informing this process.

Page Stuart

Page Stuart
photo: Supplied

Alberta Cattle Feeders chair Page Stuart, who was recently elected as director-at-large to the CRSB council, says she’s been fortunate to connect with every sector of the food chain through the years and this is the first time she has seen everyone open doors to let everyone see their “house.”

“The transparency of the discussions speaks to strong commitment,” Stuart says.

She is also encouraged by the process because it helped focus some attention on the importance of the economic viability of food production. Often the ability to sustain a business financially is overshadowed by the environmental and social pieces when all three are equally vital, she explains.

ACFA encourages members to participate in the pilot, but recognizes that not everyone has the immediate time or resources to contribute to building the process. She can say that cattle feeders who have participated have provided candid and very specific feedback that contributed a great deal as development of the indicators progressed.

“The art and science of food production has hit the public’s radar,” she says, adding that an important part of the process has been to identify areas where public expectations are high for measuring outcomes, but technology hasn’t caught up with practical, cost-effective ways to lead continuous improvement. Working through the process and identifying these priority areas will help the CRSB collaborate with researchers to find practical and credible measures.

“The pilot creates an opportunity for all of us as organizations and individuals within the Canadian beef community to help chart the next level of continuous improvements,” Stuart says. “McDonald’s has generously shared the indicators with the CRSB, which will continue to use a multi-stakeholder process to challenge thinking, adjust to changes in technology, and maximize our opportunity to brand verified sustainable Canadian beef in global markets. Creating a brand around what sustainability means in Canadian beef production places us at a new level in world export markets. We’re raising our hands to be counted.”

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