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“If You Talk the Talk, You Gotta Walk the Walk”

Nutrition with John McKinnon

My August column focused on alternatives to current growth promoting technology. My general conclusion was that while there are alternatives on the market, they fail to achieve the same beneficial production responses as seen with implants, ionophores and prudent use of antibiotics. While I applaud and encourage continued research into new/alternative technology to promote production efficiency, I worry that as an industry we are reacting too strongly to “perceived” market demands. Yes, there is a segment of consumers that want natural or organic beef and again, I applaud producers, packers and retailers who target those markets. It seems to me, however, that when I go to stores such as Costco, Walmart or Safeway or restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, the vast majority of consumers are interested in high quality, safe, wholesome beef. As well, consumers are increasingly demanding assurances that their food is raised in an environmentally sustainable fashion and that animals are treated humanely.

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This seems to me to be where a disconnect occurs. While industry groups nationally and provincially promote such production practices through development of codes of practice for animal care — the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef initiative and the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program — at the ranch or feedlot level there does not seem to be a sense of urgency in meeting the demands of today’s consumer. The general attitude seems to be “my cattle are produced in a safe, humane and environmentally friendly manner so why do I need to provide assurances” or “if I do so, will I get paid for it”?

Let’s look at the VBP+ program as an example. This program is led nationally by the Canadian Cattleman’s Association (CCA) and delivered by provincial beef organizations or though non-profit corporations. It has its roots in the long-standing On Farm Food Safety Program run by the CCA and was known as the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program. VBP focused on educating producers with regard to safe food production practices with an emphasis on sound animal health practices and prudent feed and water management, pesticide use and cattle transportation practices. VBP provided producers with a set of standard operating practices (SOPs) that could followed voluntarily or one could sign up for an annual on-farm audit program.

To react to potential issues with infectious disease and consumer concerns with how their food is raised, the program was recently expanded (i.e. now known as VBP+) to include modules and SOPs related to biosecurity, environmental stewardship and animal care. Recommended production practices are for the most part based on long-standing animal husbandry practices found on most beef operations. What is important, however, is that they are tied to current national standards for animal care (Code of Practice for Beef Cattle Care), biosecurity (Canadian Beef Cattle On-Farm Biosecurity Standard) and provincial environmental farm plans. The program, while voluntary, has at its core, an audit program that allows producers to showcase their operation as one that follows and documents sustainable beef production practices.

As indicated, there has been a lot of industry effort both nationally and provincially to implement the VBP and VBP+ programs. While a significant number of producers have been trained in many of the SOPs put forward by the program, the reality is that relatively few have become registered producers who undergo the audit process. One of the reasons cited for not going the next step, is that there is no current economic advantage to offset the increased work load associated with the record-keeping required for the audit. While this may be true, it is a situation that would change quickly if packers and retailers start to demand beef produced under such a program. Further, it seems to me there is a bigger picture we should be looking at. As a registered VBP+ producer who is part of a larger collective of registered cow-calf and feedlot operations across the country, your involvement facilitates the industry’s efforts to communicate to consumers both nationally and internationally that Canadian beef is indeed high quality and produced in a sustainable manner that includes a focus on food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship. More importantly, by participating in the audit process, you document to the world that your beef is produced in such a manner.

You might come back with the argument “I already produce beef in such a fashion, why do I need to document it?” I am not sure that argument holds much weight with today’s consumer, who as indicated above is increasingly interested in assurances as to how his/her food is produced and is not afraid to communicate these demands though their spending practices. It is worthwhile pointing out that other Canadian industries such as poultry and dairy have taken note and implemented mandatory quality assurance programs.

I don’t think many of us want a mandatory program, but if we want to maintain consumer confidence in Canadian beef, as an industry we need to move to a system that not only reacts to consumer demands, but one that also provides the assurances needed to maintain that confidence. In the words of a famous football coach, “if you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk.”

About the author

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John McKinnon

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].

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