It’s not every day you see a group of politicians from France’s Assemblée nationale trooping around an Alberta ranch in plastic booties.
But that was the case earlier this month at Shoestring Ranch near Acme as Ian and Carman Murray played host to three députés (France’s version of MPs), a pair of officials from Canada’s embassy in France, and several folks from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
It’s just one example of the quiet, behind-the-scenes effort by the cattle association to pry open what has been a very sticky door to Europe for Canadian beef.
“Two or three times a year, there are delegations from various countries that come and tour processing facilities, feedlots, and cow-calf operations,” said Bob Lowe, a Nanton-area feedlot owner who is the CCA vice-president and chair of its foreign trade committee.
Back in the fall of 2017, his organization hailed the trade deal with Europe, saying it now “has potential to become a $600-million annual customer for Canadian beef,” but adding that “ongoing technical barriers” have to be resolved. Those include not using hormones, finding an acceptable carcass wash, and having enough vets who are qualified to certify beef meets European standards.
Efforts by the cattle sector to break into Europe are working, but it’s slow going.
Last year, both the amount and value of Canadian beef sold in the EU roughly doubled but the numbers were relatively small — 1,059 tonnes of beef worth $15.5 million went from Canada to Europe while 3,236 tonnes, (a 12 per cent increase) worth $18.9 million (up 22 per cent) came the other way.
“The Europeans are still sending more in the form of tonnage than we’re sending over there, but the dollar value is about the same. It’s increasing every year,” said Lowe.
Hosting European delegations increases understanding of how Canadian beef is produced and also assuages fears about CETA (the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), Lowe added.
“There’s a lot of fear in different players in Europe that we are huge players in the beef industry and we’re just moving in to shut them down,” he said. “We’ve got two to three per cent of cattle in the world. We aren’t that big.”
The view from the ranch
Shoestring Ranch was a natural stop for the French politicians, who also visited nearby Hagel Feeders and a Viterra elevator.
Ian Murray has produced for the ‘natural beef’ market for many years, selling beef from cattle raised without growth promotants or treated with antibiotics at farmers’ markets and also selling to Europe through the Heritage Angus Beef group. He’s also certified under the Verified Beef Production Plus program and works with Mark Klassen, the CCA’s director of technical services, on issues related to selling beef to Europe.
“There’s a little bit of extra time commitment as far as paperwork and sitting down with the vets,” said Murray. “Because we’re already 95 per cent there, it’s a worthwhile step to take us a little bit further.”
Still, he’s not sure whether selling to the EU market is a great money-maker for him.
“The jury is really out on whether you are making any more money right now going into the EU market versus what we could get implanting these calves (with a growth promotant) and going the commercial route,” he said. “That’s been a debate that has been going on 20 years.”
But it’s beneficial to develop new markets and expand smaller ones, instead of just relying on the U.S., he said.
“In the end, even if it’s a break-even to what we could get if we implanted… it’s opening up to an EU market.”
Klassen estimates the extra production gained from hormone implants “probably approaches $200 for the live animal supply chain,” and so beef sold to Europe needs to fetch more to close that gap.
Culls and carcasses
But there’s another option that the cattlemen’s association is exploring — selling breeding cows. “That would be a huge boost to the industry for the culled cow herd,” said Lowe. “You can be pretty sure that a cow that is a breeding animal has never had a growth promotant. They automatically meet that criteria.”
But the catch is that the EU would have to accept cattle older than 30 months, which is another initiative the CCA is working on.
Yet another is getting Europe’s approval of carcass washes (a safety measure for pathogens such as E. coli) used in Canada.
“We have lactic acid approved,” said Klassen. “It’s in meat naturally. We can use that, but the issue with that is that it can cause some discolouration. It’s not a problem with carcasses, but if you want to apply it to cuts, that’s where the discolouration comes out. We’re trying to get another chemical approved, which is a relative of vinegar called peroxyacetic acid.”
Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lacombe station have already conducted studies on these washes and the CCA is just undertaking research with the major packers in Alberta on them.
“When we get all that done, we will make a submission to the European food safety authority,” said Klassen.
Yet another issue is the lack of vets trained by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to inspect farms and make sure they are following EU protocols.
“There are quite a few CFIA approved vets who have taken training in Alberta,” said Klassen. “But in some provinces, there wouldn’t be enough to even count on your one hand.”
Connecting participants in the EU beef program is another thing the cattlemen’s association is working on. The CFIA doesn’t release participant names, so a cow-calf producer thinking of becoming certified for Europe could be close to a feedlot that is EU registered and not even know it.
“We have an issue with being able to hook up one portion of the supply chain to another,” said Klassen.
But the demand is definitely there, said Lowe.
At a recent CCA meeting in Ottawa, he said, officials from meat packer JBS said they couldn’t get enough EU certified beef over the summer, so they had to stop those exports into Europe.
“The supply issues are holding us up,” said Lowe. “There just aren’t enough producers signed on to the program. Some people just don’t think it pays and there are not enough CFIA certified veterinarians to inspect facilities and license people to be EU compliant.”
His organization is currently working with the CFIA to get more veterinarians and producers certified, but “it’s quite a process,” he said.
“You have to have your farm certified before the calves are even born.”
Still, both Lowe and Murray are optimistic about the prospects in Europe, saying the visit from the French delegation is one more step along that road.
“The opportunity is there and as we continue to expand the European market, it will grow,” said Murray. “It’s up to producers to decide that they want to do something different and pursue that market.”