A new dawn? Sustainable beef puts money in producers’ pockets

It’s only $10 a cow, but pilot marks the first time producers 
have been paid for their stewardship efforts

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The first rubber-meets-the-road test of the years-long effort to make sustainable beef a paying proposition has been a success.

After three months of testing, the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration pilot project has shown that tracing certified sustainable cattle and beef through the supply chain is possible at current volumes.

“It’s one of the first times this type of effort has been done — actually taking the framework and implementing it in the supply chain,” said Gurneesh Bhandal, Cargill’s beef sustainability manager.

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“It’s been a great start, and the numbers we’ve been able to accomplish in the first three months are very promising.

“So far, we’re very happy with the progress we’ve made.”

The Certified Sustainable Beef Framework — a voluntary program developed by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef — was launched late last year to allow beef producers and processors to demonstrate to consumers the sustainable practices used in their operations. This pilot project, which kicked off at the start of 2018, is the first test of the audit and traceability systems needed to meet the requirements of the framework.

“In order to implement the framework within our supply chain, we needed to develop the infrastructure and method for tracking cattle and beef through the system,” said Bhandal.

“So far, what we’ve set up works well, and we’re looking for more producers to test that further.”

In the first three months of the project, more than 550,000 pounds of beef from more than 70 certified sustainable cattle producers moved through the system and was traced from farm to feedlot to packing plant — no mean feat, given how segmented the supply chain currently is.

“We all know how complicated the animal production chain is, and we had animals make it through and out the other end, which is great. It means our systems work,” said Virgil Lowe, business manager with Verified Beef Production Plus.

“Just to prove that it’s possible is a really big accomplishment.”

There was a lot of trial and error to get to that point, Bhandal added.

“We need to make sure that whatever claims we make are accurate, so it was really important that we have very high confidence in the systems that we were setting up,” she said.

“That required a lot of tweaking with how we set up that system.”

This chart from the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration pilot project shows how the money flows. photo: www.cbsapilot.ca

Chicken and egg

This enhanced level of traceability is one of the cornerstones of the Certified Sustainable Beef Framework.

“We want to be able to deliver on that for our customers who are looking to be able to make certain sustainability claims about their beef,” said Bhandal.

But convincing producers to get on board has been tricky.

Retailers have been shifting toward these sustainable claims for a number of years in an effort to meet growing consumer demand, but producers have wanted to see that their investment in production management changes and the necessary audit processes would yield a return.

“We had a chicken and an egg problem for a long time,” said Lowe. “In order to get it going, we needed some incentives. But in order to get the incentives, we needed some supply so that the retailers could sell it.”

Luckily, the retailers involved in the pilot project — including McDonald’s, Loblaws, and Cara (through its Original Joe’s and Swiss Chalet brands) — have put their money where their mouth is. For the first three months of the pilot project, producers have received a $10-per-head credit funded by these retailers to offset the cost of becoming certified and reward their efforts.

“They’ve come to the table with an astounding commitment to support the creation of this sustainable beef supply chain before they can even make sustainability claims for the products they’re getting,” said Lowe.

“The retailers have been willing to invest in it before they can get benefit from it.”

The financial incentives are tied to the volume of meat produced, so the $10-per-head figure will likely vary from quarter to quarter. But the hope is that as the volume increases, the credit will increase as well.

“For a number of years, we’ve wanted to see end-users in the market prove the demand by pushing value up the supply chain for products raised with specific types of attributes, and now we have that,” said Lowe.

“This is proof that the end-users and consumers are willing to support that financially, which is a huge benefit to our industry.”

More producers wanted

And now that retailers have invested in the process, it’s time for producers to step up, too.

“The success of this initiative — of being able to attach what happens on these beef operations to meat in the store with the consumer — is a critical component of our progression and long-term sustainability in the beef industry,” said Lowe.

“There’s a pretty big benefit in being able to put those practices out in front of consumers to say, ‘This is how good beef production is done.’”

Bhandal agrees.

“This is really about the long-term strength and sustainability of the beef industry as a whole,” she said. “Consumers are getting a lot of information about the beef industry that isn’t always positive, and I think we need a platform for the beef industry to be able to speak about what actually happens on the ranch.”

As this pilot project continues, producers will have an opportunity to shape the process to create a sustainability framework that will work for them.

And there are some benefits of getting in on the ground floor, said Lowe.

“This is the first step toward building a long-term supply chain for certified sustainable beef to meet the growing demand,” he said. “If a producer wants to be a part of that chain, they may as well get involved in the pilot.”

In order to participate, producers need to be registered with Verified Beef Production Plus, be members of BIXS, and upload information on their cattle to the Canadian Livestock Tracking System database through age verification or move-in reports. In order for cattle to qualify for the project, they must move through an entire certified chain, going from a certified ranch to a certified feedlot, and then to a certified packing plant.

Ultimately, the success of this pilot project will hinge on producer buy-in, said Lowe.

“Producers seem to be getting on board, and we hope that we can grow that throughout the rest of the pilot.”

For more information visit the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration pilot project website.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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