Sustainability efforts in the beef industry growing

Prime Cuts with Steve Kay

Sustainability was likely a word that few in the North American beef industry uttered in everyday conversation 10 years ago. Today, the word is on everyone’s lips as producers and beef packers promote and develop new programs that increase the industry’s sustainability in the eyes of beef consumers.

Cargill became the first North American packer to act when it conducted a successful pilot program in 2018 on sustainability in Canada. This led into its certified sustainable beef program that traces beef from audited farms and ranches through the supply chain to consumers. From the start of its pilot program Cargill has paid special credits to producers in the program. The payments so far have averaged just under C$18 a head for animals from certified operations (cow-calf, feedlot and anyone else who has fed or raised the animal).

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Just last month, Tyson Foods, the largest fed-beef processor in the world, unveiled a similar program. The main difference is its size as it involves more than 200 ranches in every region of the U.S. The project will work to verify sustainable beef production practices on more than five million acres of cattle-grazing land in the U.S. This would be the largest known beef transparency program in the U.S. and is part of Tyson’s focus on sustainably feeding the world while taking care of people, the planet and animals, it says.

In 2018, Tyson became the first U.S. protein company to license Progressive Beef, a quality management system designed for cattle feeding operators that sell to companies such as Tyson. Operators certified in the program follow best practices for animal welfare, food safety, responsible antibiotic use and environmental sustainability. These practices are verified twice per year through USDA-approved auditors.

Tyson will eventually link the new project with the Progressive Beef system through which it will procure more than three million certified cattle in 2020. Tyson says that represents more than half of the cattle in its supply chain. Tyson will create a value chain over time to create alignment but knows it will take time to do so, says Tyson’s Caroline Ahn.

Like Cargill, Tyson will work with Where Food Comes From, the largest provider of certification and verification services to the food industry, it says. It will source cattle from BeefCARE-verified beef producers who are committed to raising cattle using practices that have a positive impact on the land and animals, and also want to promote it. BeefCARE is a third-party sustainability verification program for cattle ranchers. More than 200 ranches are currently enrolled in the program, with plans to expand the program over the next several years. Their acres are separate from the five million targeted.

As for special payments, Tyson says it currently has several premium beef programs in place that reward producers for delivering the quality, trait-specific cattle that its customers and consumers desire. As it works to verify sustainable beef production practices through the utilization of the BeefCARE program, it will gain a better understanding of the features and benefits of the program and how it may need to structure its incentive programs, it says.

Tyson recognizes the importance of sustainable beef production practices that take care of people, the planet and animals, says Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats. Its goal is to work with ranchers to verify and when possible improve those practices so Tyson can be transparent with its customers and consumers about how cattle in its supply chain are raised, he says. I imagine other beef packers will follow Cargill’s and Tyson’s lead for the same reasons.

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A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.

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