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Ontario Corn Fed Beef

There’s nothing more motivating for members of a beef value chain than walking into a store or restaurant and seeing their brand name on the store shelf or beside an entree on a menu, says Jim Clark, executive director of Ontario Corn Fed Beef (OCFB) and the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association (OCFA) at Woodstock, Ont.

That opportunity for producers and for Ontario consumers to purchase locally produced beef has doubled with the May reintroduction of OCFB in Loblaws retail stores, including Zehrs, Your Independent Grocer and value mart outlets in the province.

Loblaw’s senior vice-president of conventional fresh, Sal Baio, says there is a real desire on the part of consumers to purchase locally produced food. Quality and competitive pricing are also important factors. Partnering with OCFB will help Loblaws meet those consumer preferences as well as its commitment to source product with integrity and locally to help support the sustainability of the beef industry.

It has taken more than a decade to move the initiative from a concept in 1999 to a sustainable reality, though Clark now realizes that’s not unusual in the big scheme of things. He’s been at the helm from the get-go and recalls that Alberta was promoting the original Alberta beef program at the time. It miffed him as to why he couldn’t find Ontario-identified beef in the stores. He was confident that there was a place for a program of their own to make it easy for consumers to identify and purchase an Ontario brand of beef with known quality and production attributes, but they would have to do more as producers to tell their good-news story and make it happen.

The OCFB brand was created and developed by a group that included cow-calf producers, feedlots, packers and industry representatives. It became the flagship brand of the OCFA formed only a year earlier in 1998, when feeders banded together with the goal of reclaiming and increasing beef’s market share in the province.

“The big thing is that I have been allowed to look down the road, think about where the industry is headed and how to get there,” he says, admitting that there were times when they thought it would be easier not to do it than to persevere. “Now that we’ve made it this far, people on all sides realize we are in the game to stay and the brand really starts to mean something. Our producers take great pride in that.”

The OCFB brand was officially launched in 2001 with a retailer who had six stores, which required about 25 head per week. Things were rolling along just great — the brand resonated with consumers and producer acceptance was good, too, so it was a real shocker when the retailer closed out in 2002.

“That’s when reality set in,” Clark says. “We found out that we had been running before we walked and that we had a lot of developmental work left to do with the brand and building our customer base.” They moved onward by working with independent butchers, small retailers and food service outlets, which helped to offset one another in balancing supply and demand.

The chain was nicely positioned to accommodate a surge of interest from retailers who were looking for a way to say “our beef is local” in the immediate wake of BSE. Production edged upward, nearing 450 head per week, however, things didn’t really move ahead until early 2007 when Loblaws began featuring OCFB in 100 Ontario stores. This experience showed them how important it is to have the production side really nailed down as it rose to 800 head per week.

Needless to say, it was a huge disappointment when the retailer made a move to supply stores across Canada with a single national branding strategy and dropped the OCFB contract at the end of the year.

Perseverance prevailed once again. OCFB began working closely with the Beef Information Centre to identify customers and products to meet the needs of those customers along with point-of-sale materials.

The Loblaw relaunch adds another 156 locations to the 125 stores, butcher shops and restaurants across Ontario and a handful of locations in the northeastern states that carry OCFB. Clark anticipates production to ramp up within the next six months from the current 2,500 to 3,000 head per week to near 4,000 head per week to obtain the balance of cuts required to meet the growing demand. Loblaw expects its demand could represent close to 3,000 head per week once the program is in full swing.

Clark and the OCFA’s commitment to the branding program has been the cornerstone of its success, however, they haven’t gone it alone. They’ve been successful at developing working relationships with suppliers, service providers and processors and have garnered support from the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, the Beef Information Centre and the provincial and federal governments.

“I feel we are having success because we aren’t competing with any of the other sectors. They know that we really don’t have interest in owning plants, running stores or operating feed companies. Those specialized services are already there so we are trying to work with them by complimenting what they do,” Clark explains.

Lesson learned: Branding is a long process and it takes a lot of money to stay in the game, but never say never and don’t ever let down your guard, especially when it comes to promoting your product. Even though everything is coming together nicely for OCFB, the board has recently purchased a mobile kitchen to take to community events because members feel it’s just as important now as it was in the beginning to be out and about telling their story and keeping their brand in the front of consumers’ minds.

How it works

The OCFB branding process begins at the feedlot level. There is no requirement to be a member of the OCFA, which today represents 110 family-run operations that finish 55 per cent of the fed beef in the province. Now that they’ve built the foundation, OCFB is looking at ways to draw Ontario cow-calf producers and backgrounders into the fold.

Participating farms must be approved through the OCFB quality- assurance training program. Currently, there are about 500 approved farms and OCFB is looking to bring another 200 on stream as the brand moves forward.

The Guelph Food Technology Centre was contracted to develop the protocols and quality-assurance program with corn grain and corn products comprising at least 80 per cent of the finishing diet. OCFB’s quality-assurance manager, Dave Murray, works with the participating feedlots to ensure that the requirements are met and the health and feed records are in order. Efforts are now underway to develop a system to match the OCFB program needs with those of the national traceability program.

The feedlots market their finished cattle to the processing plants with an affidavit confirming that the cattle meet the specifications for the OCFB brand. OCFB contracts the services of the Canadian Beef Grading Agency to verify production through the plant to the box. Only Canada AA and Canada AAA beef qualifies for the OCFB label. The plants ship the product directly to retail and food service customers who have signed no-cost licensing agreements with OCFB.

Packer participation has definitely been a success factor. The provincially inspected Norwich Packers plant has been a strong supporter of OCFB from the outset. Four federally inspected packers are now participating as well: Cargill at Guelph, St. Helen’s, Ryding Regency and Corrsetti at Toronto. Morton Wholesale is the food service wholesaler.

It works both ways because the packers want to retain their feedlot customers who are in the OCFB program and the feedlots in the OCFB program are motivated to do business with packers who want what they produce.

“We have to realize that at the end of the day, it’s the consumer who has the final say. The reality is that retailers can bring in their beef supply from anywhere and packers can purchase cattle from anywhere. As the OCFB program evolves we have a great opportunity to make sure our beef we produce here goes ahead of other suppliers. Our job is to build awareness of our brand, get consumers wanting it and make it easy for them to find it in the stores. Consumer demand will drive the tonnage, allowing us to feed more cattle right here in Ontario.”

It’s a story he has told many times at meetings with producers looking for premiums and it always ends with the same take-home message: “What will be the cost of not stepping up and getting behind OCFB as a program you own?”

For more information visit www.ontariocornfedbeef.com.

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