Alberta Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden is once again in the news as peacemaker.
First he engineered an agreement between Alberta Beef Producers and Alberta Cattle Feeders Association to resurrect a mandatory national $1 checkoff in Alberta. This time he’s brought every producer interest group together to hammer out some common-sense principles for implementing beef cattle traceability in Alberta, and we hope Canada. The result was an agreement signed by Hayden and the Alberta Beef Producers, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, the Beef Industry Alliance, the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency and Alberta’s Livestock Inspection Services last month.
It has been a long time since we have seen such unanimity among Alberta cattle producers, which indicates the level of concern everyone feels about how traceability is being rammed down their throats.
Ever since the federal and provincial agriculture ministers set the clock on livestock traceability at 2011 this policy has had the feel of a runaway train with a bunch of bureaucrats at the throttle. It has never been clear where this sense of urgency originates, other than the minds of politicians.
The cattle industry has supported the move to traceability, partly on the chance that it may open some doors to old markets in Asia, and partly because there was nothing they could do to stop it. Governments have shown they are going to have food traceability come what may, so producer representatives got onboard to try and have some influence on how it was put into action.
This Alberta agreement is the first concrete sign producer concerns will be addressed, at least in Canada’s largest beef province.
The five guiding principles are:
1. Traceability will support industry standards for commerce. That’s usually described as the speed of commerce. In Alberta it means the reading of tags can’t be allowed to slow down auction sales. The agreement makes particular mention of the fall run when the largest volumes of calves and yearlings move through auction rings to feedlots or backgrounding operations. We can only assume this means ear tags, ID readers and software, “will” support the current operating standards for markets that handle large volumes in the fall. Auction market operators right across the country will be happy to see this very real concern ranked so high on Alberta’s list.
2. Traceability will enhance the competitive position of the industry. Just how it will do that is not explained. The agreement does cite traceability as a critical element to a robust internationally recognized animal health and food safety system. Makes you wonder how we are successfully negotiating health and safety protocols with other countries now. It also requires traceability to be implemented progressively as benefits are identified and technology becomes available at an acceptable cost. And they are talking about real benefits — lessening the impact of a foreign animal disease, raising the market value of beef, or enhancing market access for beef.
3. Traceability will expand only as technology allows. This assumes tags can be read at a reasonable rate of speed and accuracy as groups of cattle are moving through the large alleys or weigh scales found in the larger markets, not just one head at a time in a single chute.
4. Industry standards will drive the tolerances set for tag readability and retention. Everyone recognizes that 100 per cent tag retention and readability is not possible with the current equipment. That being the case the Alberta industry is looking for an acceptable range of tolerance and a practical enforcement policy on lost tags. The present zero-tolerance policy unfairly puts the onus for compliance fully on the backs of producers.
5. Producer information must remain confidential. This reinforces an essential tenet of the original ID program. The only exceptions will be when government is tracking an animal disease or food safety emergency, the producer consents to the disclosure, or the data is aggregated for reporting purposes.
Up until now government has shown little serious interest in these practical concerns raised by cattle producers, many of which have now been validated by research and producer experience. Mr. Hayden seems willing to champion these standards at the next agriculture ministers’ enclave. We encourage all his colleagues to support him. In this instance Alberta represents the opinion of producers in all of Canada.
If nothing else, they could slow this train down.
Finally,someone is listening to the concerns of producers