Sustainable beef initiative effort motors ahead

Harvey’s signs on to program as demand for certified sustainable beef continues to grow

Fast-food chain Harvey’s has become the latest major buyer to sign up for the ‘sustainable’ beef initiative.

But even while the number of retailers is increasing, most cattle producers are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach that has resulted in a gap between supply and demand.

However, that gap is closing, said Ponoka rancher Greg Bowie, a director with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) and co-chair of the organization’s framework committee

“We are still seeing demand outstrip supply, but more and more producers are getting certified as time goes on,” said Bowie. “Both of the certification companies — Verified Beef Production Plus and Where Food Comes From — are trying to keep up with the demand.

“We are shooting for bigger numbers every month and every year.”

Getting Harvey’s on board will help, said Emily Murray, general manager of Cargill’s McDonald’s beef program.

Emily Murray.
photo: Supplied

“The Harvey’s announcement created a bit of a ripple effect in the industry and has definitely sparked more interest from producers, who have seen more of that marketing in public,” she said.

Harvey’s joins McDonald’s, Loblaws, Swiss Chalet, Original Joe’s and Cactus Club as a partner in a sustainable beef pilot program being run by Cargill.

Last year, about 4.7 million pounds of beef qualified as “verified” sustainable. However, according to Cargill estimates, 6.5 million pounds of eligible beef failed to qualify due to feedlots not being certified.

“Right now we’re trying to build on both the supply and demand sides,” said Bowie.

Some producers have held off on becoming certified for the program, waiting to see if demand from buyers will be ongoing. But it’s creating a chicken and egg situation as potential buyers want to know there will be sufficient supply before promoting their use of certified sustainable beef.

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“One of the things we’re trying to do is get people to recognize this is not going to work if just a few people do it,” said Murray.

“This is something that truly requires broad industry support. One of our roles is to help incentivize people to tell each other about the program and make sure the people that you are selling to or buying from are aware of it.”

Some producers may be put off by the audit required to be a certified operation. Although most producers are already doing most of the things required to be certified, the process is still fairly stringent, said Bowie. However, this is necessary in order to meet customer demands.

“Consumers are looking at things much broader than they used to,” he said. “They want to make sure that a number of things are properly taken care of. In the beef industry, we’ve been taking care of those things for a lot of years, but we haven’t had a means of certifying that we’re doing them.

“CRSB certification shows that not only is the producer saying they are doing the right thing — they have proof they’re doing the right thing.”

Nevertheless, requests for audits are high.

“There’s only so many certifiers that are working across the country,” said Bowie. “Depending on how many producers are asking for them in a particular area, the waiting time can vary quite a bit.

“I believe VBP+ is trying to get the on-farm certification done within less than two months of contact with the producers.”

Payments to certified cattle producers in the pilot have been in the $10- to $20-per-head range, which is not necessarily enough to cover the cost of the audit (although it has in some cases).

Murray said she sees this less as a payment than a means of thanking early-adopting producers for investing in the audit, which helps build the program.

“Producers also shouldn’t forget that it’s a five-year audit cycle so you’re only paying an audit once every five years,” she said. “So even if you do not recoup in the first year you should recoup as we grow the program.”

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