Plenty of producer interest, but too many provinces are giving VBP the cold shoulder
In his column this month meat industry observer, Steve Kay argues that the best way to beat country-of-origin labelling in the U.S. is to generate our own Proudly Produced in Canada beef products.
This is not a new idea. Value chains are just another way of producing the consistent product needed to back up a label. And every politician and marketing specialist around has been advising the need for supply chains for years now. Steve’s vision is just a little more grand in that he thinks the whole industry should adopt practices needed to produce a registered brand.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association could tell him that’s not a very easy thing to do. Just look at the troubles they have had getting the Canadian Beef Advantage off the ground.
In truth I guess we could say the CCA has been working on this idea for the best part of a decade, starting with the Quality Starts Here program. That was the first step in creating Standard Operating Procedures for cattle production. Many of you will remember the manuals that were written by researchers and honed down to practical advice by producer panels. With the support of Intervet Schering-Plough, we continue to publish monthly reminders of these standards on our Quality Starts Here page.
The money for the old QSH program came from a federal on-farm food safety program that was administered by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Later, with the signing of the Agricultural Policy Framework agreement the largely educational QSH program became a more focused Verified Beef Production (VBP) model. VBP took the on-farm requirements from the QSH program and refined them into auditable, HACCP-based standards that could be taught at workshops people had to attend to be registered as VBP producers.
Slowly organizations grew up in every province to deliver the workshops and, when producers wanted, to audit their farms to certify they were indeed following recommended practices.
In 2003 VBP was given the stamp of approval by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on-farm food safety recognition program. This is the government group that oversees all on-farm food safety programs in Canada to certify they meet the technical requirements to satisfy international standards. The stamp of approval is granted to only one group in each commodity, so it must be national in scope.
This past July CFIA renewed its stamp of approval for VBP.
As with all voluntary efforts it has been a long, slow climb to reach this point but the VBP program is starting to gain some real traction. In part this is due to the growing acceptance of value chains, as most of them require producers to register with VBP and take the training. Equally important, the structure to carry out this program is now in place in every province. Terry Grajczyk, the national co-ordinator, estimates 30 to 35 per cent of all the beef produced in Canada today comes from VBP registered operations.
That’s a pretty impressive number, but it needs to go much higher yet — probably 80 per cent or better — if Canada is ever going to be in a position to live up to the promise of the Canadian Beef Advantage or Steve Kay’s Proudly Produced in Canada brand.
That’s why it would be such a shame if VBP were chopped down now, right when it’s on the threshold of becoming such a valuable service to beef producers. This is a very real possibility, as the funding for the program appears to have become yet another victim of shifting federal-provincial responsibilities.
The new Growing Forward program downloaded all the responsibility for on-farm food safety to the provinces. So instead of going to one federal source for funds VBP officials now must try to sign renewal agreements in every province. In the past 10 months they’ve received plenty of promises but only Saskatchewan has signed on to continue the program.
The other major beef-producing provinces seem more interested in rolling on-farm food safety in with biosecurity and traceability measures and have it run by their own staff.
Provincial producer associations may be able to keep the skeleton of the VBP program alive but none have the coin to run workshops and provide grants to purchase equipment. Without that the program pretty well falls flat.
If it was larger, with more people already signed up, it could maybe survive on fees from the producers themselves. But that is only supposition at this point.
Without a uniform national program, VBP would likely lose its CFIA status and with it the international stamp of approval. The alternative would be a bunch of competing provincial programs with no real national focus.
What a waste.