Sustainable beef is within our grasp

McDonald’s Restaurant project set the tone for Canadian beef industry

Producer Bob Lowe says the Canadian beef industry needs to get behind producing verified sustainable beef. Photo: Lee Hart

Alberta cattleman Bob Lowe didn’t have to do any management back flips on his ranch to produce cattle that under a recently completed pilot project qualify as “verifiable sustainable beef.”

He has always aimed to apply sound production and environmental practices with his 500-head commercial cow-calf operation and 7,000-head-capacity southern Alberta feedlot.

He and family members at Bear Trap Feeders, near Nanton south of Calgary, do make sure they are using proper and recommended procedures for handling cattle, attend to proper animal health protocols, and apply proper water and pasture management practices. They follow the procedures and keep proper records. They have completed the Canadian Cattleman’s Association Verified Beef Program (VBP) and are fine-tuning recommendations under the provincial Environmental Farm Plan.

“To produce cattle that qualify as verifiable sustainable beef didn’t require many changes in how we do things on our ranch,” says Lowe, who is also chair of the Alberta Beef Producers. “We know what the recommended practices are, we just had to make sure we were following them to the best of our ability and were keeping proper records. It’s probably not much different than what many producers do anyway, but it involves making adjustments where needed and keeping records.”

Lowe figures producing livestock within the relatively broad term of sustainable beef is what’s going to keep the Canadian beef industry in the game in terms of meeting the evolving needs of markets, retailers and consumers.

The system — the protocol, the tools — are there to do it. It can be done. Now it is up to Canadian beef producers and the rest of the industry to grab the ball and run with it.

Lowe doesn’t expect an overnight change, but he says it would not only be a shame, but ultimately costly if the whole beef industry doesn’t seize the opportunity to move toward the sustainable beef realm.

McDonald’s project

That one-year pilot project wasn’t about producing beef for McDonald’s, it was about developing a system or protocol the Canadian beef industry could use as it markets beef not only domestically but around the world.

“The project was about seeing if we could produce verifiable sustainable beef and we did,” says Lowe. “It is the type of beef that McDonald’s want to use in their program, but it also identifies a production system for producing beef that will appeal to broader markets. Canada is in a unique and enviable position because we have the programs and also the tools to make it all work. Years ago many complained this cattle identification system we have in Canada was just a nuisance, but in this changing marketplace it may just prove to be our saving grace.”

McDonald’s Restaurant chain is a tremendous ally of the Canadian beef industry. Internationally, McDonald’s uses about two per cent of the beef produced in the world. Just in Canada the burger giant sources 65 million pounds of beef annually for a 100 per cent Canadian beef claim. It stood by the Canadian beef industry during and following the BSE crisis of 2003. And in 2013 it approached the Canadian Cattleman’s Association’s (CCA), Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef and asked the industry if it was interested in a pilot project to produce not just good quality beef but “verified sustainable beef.”

Lowe who headed the CCA environmental committee at the time, viewed it as an opportunity, but admits being a bit naive at the outset. “Going into this I thought it was a program we could probably hammer out in an afternoon,” he says. Two years and many, many meetings later the pilot program was launched in 2015. In the spring of 2016 the project wrapped up with nearly 9,000 head of cattle classified as “verified sustainable beef.”

In all the discussions that went on to design the pilot project, Lowe says there were two main aspects he welcomed. First, in producing sustainable beef, McDonald’s wasn’t talking about producing beef with “freedom from” (freedom from hormones and antibiotics). In fact, the project welcomed science and technology — what tools can modern beef production use that increase efficiency, reduce the environmental footprint, respect animal welfare yet yield a very healthy, safe food product? “And it wasn’t a prescriptive type of approach that ‘you must do this,’” says Lowe. “As an industry we were able to say, ‘You tell us what you want, what you would like the end product to be, and we’ll tell you how we can get there.’ They were eager to work with the industry to achieve the final product.”

Project numbers

“So we know we can do it,” says Lowe. “Now the challenge is to get the Canadian beef industry all working toward that goal. It is a shift for the entire beef industry and we need producers to embrace it. The value of doing it may not be reflected in the price per pound of beef, but just in being able to stay in business. It’s about adopting these practices on our own as beef producers, rather than being legislated. And down the road, even as we continue to produce good quality beef, if we aren’t producing cattle that meet the verified sustainable beef criteria we might not even have a chair at the international trade table.”

So what’s involved in producing “verified sustainable beef?” As Lowe found, for many producers it’s not really that big a stretch from what most do already. But in some respects it is formalizing that process, documenting it, keeping records and having it audited. Proper production practices with land, water, cattle, animal health procedure, and farm safety are among the key “indicators” that have been established. Practices and procedures through the whole beef production chain need to be monitored or audited by a third party, and all cattle need to be traceable through the production system.

Tools are there

The five indicator categories (or principles), which pilot participants were measured on, encompassed:

  1. Natural resources — such as ensuring soil health, water supply, and wildlife and plant biodiversity.
  2. People and community — includes ensuring a safe work environment and commitment to supporting the local community.
  3. Animal health and welfare — such as adequate feed to drinking water and minimizing animal stress and pain.
  4. Food — such as ensuring food safety and beef quality, including training and registration in the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program.
  5. Efficiency and innovation — such as recycling and energy efficiency programs.

Producing verified sustainable beef will in many cases require more management to not only follow but document production practices. And Lowe says producers shouldn’t be worried about the auditing process — it’s not a punishment. “If an auditor comes to your operation and grades you on a scale of one to five on some production practice and you get rated a three out of five, for example, that doesn’t mean you are doing a bad job,” says Lowe. “It’s just a report card. You can say that is good to know, here is an area where I need to make some improvement.”

Lowe admits he’s not keen on the word “sustainable” because it doesn’t properly describe the job ahead. “The dictionary defines sustainable as something maintained or static and that’s really not what we are after,” he says.

“The market is looking for a beef product that is high-quality, healthy, safe, produced humanely in an environmentally responsible way,” he says. “It is a sustainable program that is always moving forward and improving. Through this pilot program we’ve really been given a chance to shape our own destiny as an industry, and that’s something we don’t want to pass up.”

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

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