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‘It’s happening,’ says new chair of sustainable beef group

Interest in producing — and consuming — sustainable beef is growing, says Anne Wasko

Interest in producing sustainable beef is growing thanks to a pilot program that is paying producers who meet the standards laid out by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, says the organization’s new chair.

Anne Wasko.
photo: File/Supplied

“I think it’s happening,” said Anne Wasko. “In this business, change happens fairly slowly. But the dollars are out there — $10 to $20 a head has got a lot of producers’ attention.”

Those premiums are being paid from the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot, a voluntary initiative that includes three major beef buyers: McDonald’s, Loblaws, and Cara (through its Original Joe’s and Swiss Chalet brands).

The roundtable doesn’t contribute to the premiums, noted Wasko, a well-known market analyst, who also raises cattle with her husband at Eastend, Sask.

“There has been some misunderstanding… the CRSB doesn’t offer credits or anything like that,” said Wasko, who took over from the roundtable’s founding chair, Sheri Copithorne-Barnes, in September.

“At the end of the day, the CRSB doesn’t have the finances to offer rewards. It’s going to be the end-users, like the pilot project. That’s going to be up to the marketplace. If McDonald’s says that this is important to our consumers and therefore, they are willing to go into this program with Cargill, which pays back to the cow-calf level.

“That’s been their way to send the financial message back to producers.”

Creating official sustainability logos, which were rolled out in August, is another step in raising awareness of the program and what it involves.

For producers, it means signing up and being certified through the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program.

“So if you’re VBP+ (certified) already, basically, you can sign up for the pilot project,” she said.

While Canada has been the world leader in creating a system to produce certified sustainable beef, others are following, she said, including the U.S. (which is starting its own roundtable) and the European Union (which just announced plans to create one).

“Canada is ahead of these other roundtables,” said Wasko. “But certainly it’s a trend around the world, in terms of beef sustainability being on the radar screen in beef-producing countries.”

While the roundtable’s certification efforts may result in Canadian beef being viewed more favourably in international markets, the organization’s efforts have been focused on the domestic front, she added.

“A lot of our branded programs are more domestic and that’s where I see it more,” she said.

The acceleration pilot, which has been extended, has so far produced more than 2.2 million pounds of beef that certified to have been raised and processed according to the roundtable standards. Producers who raised the cattle for that beef have received retroactive cheques (payments were $10 per head in the pilot’s first quarter of operation, $20 in the second, and $18.11 in the third quarter).

“It would be nice to have it out in front rather than afterwards,” said Wasko, whose operation is VBP+ certified. “But again, that’s for the market to figure out.”

Since consumer interest in sustainably produced food is both increasing and evolving, programs that produce sustainable food will change over time, too, she said.

“We’ve got a good story to tell and I think that we can talk and engage all parts of the value chain,” said Wasko. “At the end of the day, I think it’s important to keep that conversation moving forward.”

Details on how the sustainability pilot works, including answers to frequently asked questions, can be found at cbsapilot.ca.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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