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More Buck for your Beef

By Alexis Kienlen

Beef sustainability has made significant advancements over the last six years with the creation of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, the McDonald’s global pilot project and other programs. The common thread is they are designed to give the consumer greater peace and mind and the producer more money on their bottom line.

“Sustainability has been in place on ranches and farms for generations or they wouldn’t be here,” says Cecilie Fleming, a seedstock producer from Granum, Alta., who chairs the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program. But proving sustainability to consumers is the main challenge the beef industry has had to tackle. In recent years, the industry has been communicating more to its customers, and progressive ranchers have focused on continuous improvement. 

Fleming, who farms with her husband and her daughter’s family, says sustainability should be viewed in a number of ways. She is heartened by the young producers in her area who are embracing their place in the production chain. 

“They’re no longer just the kids. They’re the people who are taking on the next level of management,” she says. “We can make the ground as sustainable as we want, we can make the water as sustainable as we want, but if we don’t have young producers ready to succeed and go on to become the next generation, it’s all for naught.”

Fleming sees profitability as an important piece of sustainability. 

“When you’re short of cash, you start scrimping on things. Then some of the things that help you be sustainable are compromised. Farming and ranching need to stay in a profitable position,” she says.

Verified Beef Production Plus has been in operation since 2003, but it’s one of just a series of parts, that have come together over the past two decades. Organizations like the Beef Cattle Research Council have provided research and sound science to help beef producers adopt more sustainable options on their ranches. In 2014, McDonald’s International came to Canada to test its pilot project. Not long after, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) was established.

Fleming explained beef sustainability as an interconnected circle, involving every portion of the supply chain from cow-calf producers, to feedlot owners, to retailers and restaurant owners, and even consumers. Every part of the industry has to do their part to increase sustainability along the beef supply chain. 

“It’s a holistic approach, I think. Nobody in the chain is superior to the other. The restaurant doesn’t have a product if they don’t have the packing plants or the fabrication end of things. The feedlot sector doesn’t exist if you don’t have the cow-calf supply. We’re all in a circular supply chain, and I don’t think one part of the value chain is superior to the other. They’re all vital,” she says.

While not all producers have joined formal programs, many are now registered for certification programs such as VBP+. This producer-driven program developed by the actual men and women who make a living through animals. Fleming says the program is an educational one, and once producers take the courses, they can go on to be audited. 

“If you want to go the next step past training and education to an audit, that allows the value chain to say, ‘we can make a claim. These people have been audited to a standard that meets the standard for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. We are a partner or a vehicle for them. VBP+ has permission or the authority to be an auditing body for the CRSB,” she says. 

Once a producer is certified, they must have an annual check-in to make sure they adhere to the standards or they will be removed from the program. VBP+ emphasizes animal health and welfare, as well as responsible environmental practices and land use. It’s a voluntary program producers choose to belong to. 

Fleming says being audited does a lot to help consumers believe farmers when they talk about the procedures and practices they use on their ranches. 

Being able to speak about what you do and keep current is also an important of maintaining the industry, she says. 

“It’s important for us as an industry to advocate for ourselves and as producers, we better know what we’re talking about. If we as producers need to educate ourselves to know more about sustainability, to know more about ecosystems and to know more about beef production and protocols, that’s our responsibility to know. We have to be professionals and be continuously learning, as well,” she says. 

Anne Wasko, current chair of the CRSB, says that in order to prove sustainability and an ability to trace beef back through the chain, the beef industry had to go back to square one and prove that they could do it. 

Before this, the industry was asking consumers to trust them, but they didn’t have any way to show or explain the practices used in beef production. 

“It has to be just much more than ‘trust me,’” says Wasko, who runs a commercial cow-calf operation in Eastend, Sask., with her husband Barry. “We have to be able to show that we can back ourselves up, especially for programs that are touting specific claims, in terms of sustainability.” 

Wasko says more potential programs will pop up, and that certification programs aren’t unique to Canada, but are used in countries around the world. In the United States, there are a myriad of options where cattle are included in specific branded programs for retail and food services. 

The McDonald’s global pilot project proved beef could be sourced sustainably from ranch through feedlot to processor to retailer. The food company worked with the ranching industry to help establish the CRSB, a multi-stakeholder community which contains all parts of the value chain, dedicated to advancing sustainability in the beef industry. 

The McDonald’s pilot project led to the Cargill Beef sustainability pilot, which is now the Cargill Certified Sustainable Beef program. From a calf’s birth until it is slaughtered, the animal must be born on a farm, go through a feedlot and be slaughtered by a certified sustainable processor in order to qualify for the program.

The Cargill pilot became a program in 2018. Producers enrolled in the program were earning a retroactive credit of about $20 a head on cattle who qualified that year. The credit payments occurred because Cargill’s retail and food service, requested the sustainable beef, and paid for it. The credits have changed with the program. The program helped Cargill, and its customers become advocates for the beef industry, according to Emily Murray, beef business manager with Cargill.

The program also brought other retailers and end-users to be part of the process, and offers a financial credit back to the producer, if the animal is slaughtered at Cargill. The program uses the CRSB’s framework and end-users, like restaurants or retailers, can use the organization’s logo on their products, to show they are certified as sustainable beef. 

The sustainable label or the mark of the acceptance from the CRSB can be attractive to end-users. McDonald’s, Harvey’s and Chop Steakhouse and Bar, all offer products with the CRSB logo, which can appeal to consumers, and help the entire value chain. 

It’s the way that beef marketing is going, says Wasko. 

“The bottom line is that we used to be able to say that we’ve done it, but certification programs are now the norm for making marketing claims,” says Wasko. “It’s not unique to Canada. This is how marketing of food is going,” she says.