EXCLUSIVE: Loblaws jumps on board the sustainable beef initiative

Canada’s largest food retailer has joined McDonald’s, the largest beef buyer, 
in an undertaking that could reshape the cattle sector

Canada’s largest food retailer has pledged to start selling sustainable beef, joining forces with the country’s largest beef buyer in an initiative that could reshape the industry, Alberta Farmer has learned.

Loblaws, which has more than 1,000 stores serving 14 million Canadians weekly, already has a sustainable seafood program and is keen to do the same with beef, said the company’s senior director of sustainability.

“Right now, we’re really in the stage of learning, with the full supply chain, about sustainable beef,” said Melanie Agopian. “That’s why we are participating in the roundtable and the pilot. We just want to learn as much as we can with industry as a whole. We are always working to source with integrity and that is part of the effort.”

Unlike McDonald’s, which boldly announced it would begin selling “verified sustainable” beef in 2016, Loblaws has not set a target date. Nor has it publicly announced its commitment, although it did tell its fellow members on the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef at a meeting in Kelowna in September. The company is the retail member on the roundtable, which was set up by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and has been working with McDonald’s on its plan to pilot verified sustainable beef in Canada.

Despite the looming 2016 target date, there’s still no firm definition of sustainable beef — or what it means for producers — but details are slowly emerging.

A key one is that McDonald’s has committed to using an expanded Verified Beef Production program — dubbed Verified Beef Plus — that will have animal care and environmental modules in addition to its on-farm food safety protocols.

Indicators being tested

Fawn Jackson

Fawn Jackson
photo: Supplied

Another is that about 20 so-called “indicators” will be used to assess sustainability.

“What we’re going to be doing at the Canadian roundtable over the next year is starting to develop those indicators; discuss whether these are appropriate for Canada and how we fit in to them; and all those sorts of broader discussions,” said Fawn Jackson, the CCA’s manager of environment and sustainability.

“Development of the indicators isn’t a job that has been tackled yet. That’s upcoming.”

However, McDonald’s is currently working with a group of producers across the country to test draft indicators and find ways to verify them.

“Right now we’re in the process of getting a larger group of producers to massage these indicators some more,” said Bob Lowe, a CCA director and Nanton-area feedlot owner.

But the key point is that this new system won’t impose rules from above or force producers to make sweeping changes to their operation, said Lowe, who sits on the verified beef and McDonald’s steering committees as well as the roundtable.

Bob Lowe

Bob Lowe
photo: Supplied

For example, an indicator might be something like clean water, and depending on the ranch might mean fencing off dugouts, improving an existing watering system, or simply documenting what the operation is already doing, he said.

“The outcome is cleaner water, but how you get there is up to you,” said Lowe.

Part of the challenge is that the framework for these new protocols is still being developed.

Originally called a life cycle analysis and expected to be completed in September, it has been expanded and is now called the “beef industry sustainability assessment.” Deloitte has been hired to help with the assessment, which is now due to be completed by next summer.

Target date looming

But the definition of sustainable beef will never be “set in stone,” said Lowe.

“In the end, when these indicators get developed, they will define sustainability in Canada on that particular day,” said Lowe. “What I mean by that is that it’s an evolution and continuous improvement is needed. As science progresses, the indicators will change.”

Doug Sawyer

Doug Sawyer
photo: Supplied

Meanwhile the clock is ticking for McDonald’s.

The Canadian arm of the fast-food giant has been charged with delivering on its parent company’s promise of sourcing some sustainably produced beef by Jan. 1, 2016.

“The McDonald’s project will be able to move ahead quicker than the roundtable,” said Doug Sawyer, a Pine Lake-area cattle producer and past chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

McDonald’s did not respond to interview requests, but insiders said they expect the burger chain will start by granting some sort of designation to cattle operations and feedlots which adhere to the indicators it’s currently testing.

“The thing about it is McDonald’s is happening first,” said Lowe. “They didn’t want that, and nobody did, but that’s just the way it has to be just because of the way things move.”

But the company has made firm commitments to work with Canadian producers and the entire supply chain, he added.

“I am totally convinced that McDonald’s realizes it can’t do this on its own,” he said. “It doesn’t want to change the industry. It wants to say that it is selling sustainable beef. With that is going to come some obligation by industry to document things. We aren’t going to be able to say anymore that what we’re doing is wonderful just because we’re doing it.”

Pieces in place

And while that will require more record-keeping and audits to “back that up,” producers won’t be snowed under with paperwork or subject to endless inspections, said Lowe.

“Producers are not going to be audited every year,” he said. “That’s a guarantee. That won’t happen.”

Dennis Laycraft

Dennis Laycraft
photo: Supplied

Nor will all producers have to comply by 2016, said Dennis Laycraft, the CCA’s executive vice-president.

“We would just start and go down the journey and look at greater and greater levels of compliance, so that the industry has time to get ready and really build it,” said Laycraft. “As producers, our sense is that we’ve got almost all of the tools in place. What we don’t, we’re adding, like the new animal care code in the verified beef modules.”

As well, all of the players insist there will be just one nationwide program, even though McDonald’s is ahead of the roundtable in developing protocols.

“Right now, they’re two separate projects,” said Sawyer. “But they need to have the same beliefs and values, and they need to be linked. That’s vital.”

McDonald’s is not attempting to design or control the program, and is using information provided by the roundtable, added Lowe.

In the next year, the roundtable will establish itself as a functioning organization, and establish its governance and business strategy. It is chaired by Cherie Copithorne-Barnes of CL Ranch near Calgary, while Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, manager of sustainability for McDonald’s Canada, chairs a working group overseeing its communication strategy.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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