Thinking of becoming a producer of ‘verified sustainable beef,’ but wondering just what it involves?
There are 31 indicators (available at vsbpilot.ca) that cow-calf producers must meet to qualify for McDonald’s program — and at first glance, it can all seem overwhelming.
But it’s actually not that challenging, says Greg Bowie, a seedstock producer from Ponoka. The chair of Alberta Beef Producers also sits on the indicator committee for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which will take over the initiative after McDonald’s pilot ends next spring.
Here are his insights.
Will producers be able to meet these indicators?
I’ve been through the verification process myself in May, and it was not overly onerous. It’s just a means of verifying what the vast majority of producers is currently doing. One thing it makes producers aware of is the need for better record-keeping. You need to keep those records in a specific location instead of just the book in the jacket pocket. That was one thing that I took another look at when the verifiers were here. When you read the indicators by yourself, you may find that they can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. The verifiers have other questions that go along with those, to bring it into the true context.
Will there be additional costs to any producer who participates in the verification?
There can be some costs. For one thing, you have to set aside some time to go through the process. Some producers will have to do some work on certain aspects to bring them up to the minimum standards that are expected for the program. There could be monetary or time costs for that as well. But the indicators were developed so that the vast majority of producers would be able to become verified without a huge amount of additional cost.
Do you need to have completed an environmental farm plan and implement it?
I don’t know if the environmental farm plan is an actual requirement or if it’s just a suggestion that you consider doing it in the future.
Will you have to demonstrate that you’re sequestering carbon, once there’s a science-based tool available that can prove this? Is this a push to use more intensive grazing methods?
I think that this has a lot to do with the fact that at the present time, there’s no simple and easy way to tell how much carbon is being sequestered in grasslands. Until there’s a practical way of determining the amount of carbon that is there, a person has to state that they are willing to look at that once the technology becomes available. You could use more intensive grazing, but there are other things you can do as well, depending on the type of grass and weather. Grazing plans have to be modified in order to suit those things.
To qualify for the program, do you have to do a rangeland health assessment?
It’s impossible for Cows and Fish to come out and do a rangeland and health assessment for everyone. They just don’t have the staff or the dollars to do it. It’s not practical under the program to say that everyone has to have a rangeland assessment. You can do self-assessments of rangeland using a Cows and Fish outline. It all boils down to the fact that if producers know what they’re doing, and have a means of measuring improvement, it’s much easier to do the verification.
There’s one indicator about having effective workplace safety measures in place. Can you speak to that?
That’s likely going to end up being a part of everyday life whether you’re verified or not. Having a safe work environment is going to be a requirement moving forward. Currently, agriculture is exempt under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, but it’s only a matter of time until that is going to change.
As of Jan. 1, you need to have pain control for dehorning and castration. Will this be an issue?
The pain control measures are based on the Beef Code of practice. The indicators do not vary from what the code says. A lot of producers, depending on what their vet says, will be able to follow the code themselves.
The McDonald’s pilot program ties in with Verified Beef Production. Can you explain how?
You have to be trained to qualify at the bottom level, which means you have to have taken a verified beef production course. You need to be registered in the VBP program to achieve a Level 5 score (the highest level in the McDonald’s program). There are a high number of people who are trained, but the number of people registered in Verified Beef Production is low. When people are registered in the program, it means that a verifier has come out. It’s much more involved than just the training, which can be done in a half-day session or online.
Do you have to be on BIXS (Beef InfoXchange System) to be in the pilot?
The way things are set up right now, BIXS is the only program that allows a company like McDonald’s to track those animals through each stage of production. In order to say that the beef is verified sustainable, it has to be tracked to show that it was born on a verified place, fed at a verified place, processed at a verified place, and turned into a patty at (McDonald’s) plant in Spruce Grove, which has been verified. BIXS is the only system right now that allows the animals to be tracked all the way through. That could change in the future. All the information can be transferred from the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s website that tracks the RFID ear tags directly onto BIXS. It’s just a transfer.