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Is age verification pushing another agenda?

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One is always apprehensive when commenting on cattle industry politics in Alberta. Its guaranteed that someone will take offence to some words and will want to bite back with their wallet. But Alberta Farmer has a mandate to be as outspoken as its Alberta readers, so I will go where others fear to tread.

Let me first say the obvious – the political acrimony within Alberta cattle industry sectors and groups is worse than ever. Cattle politics in this province have always been lively. Political scraps between different groups is an old sport, but this time we seem to have entered a new level of animosity.

What is different this time is that we find the Alberta government, by accident or design, fanning the political flames. That tends to embolden some industry groups in reviving old agendas and some of them can smell blood – that would be Alberta Beef Producers checkoff blood, to get right to the point.

The source of the acrimony is the government-initiated Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy (ALMS). Specifically, it is the mandatory age verification feature of ALMS and the perceived use of a financial ransom to bring producers into line that is the bone of contention. It’s galvanized many cow-calf producers, since that sector will pay most of the ongoing cost of verification and the inevitable imposition of future programs.

The way ALMS was created and its goverance also annoyed many, but all of this has resulted in the issue being polarized with ABP on one side and the Western Stock Growers, Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, Beef Industry Group and Feeder Associations of Alberta on the other. The Alberta government has shown no indication of seeking a compromise. To many, the Canada Gold program, a free market approach to verification, is exactly the correct route to take.

Agriculture Minister Groeneveld could go a long way to bringing some harmony back to the industry by compromising on mandatory verification. But he is placing his total faith in the marketing theory that age-verified beef will open new markets. That’s pure conjecture and only the free market can decide that, as it should. It doesn’t help his cause when the U. S. market could care less and some of our own big packers are less than enthused about the potential of marketing age verification.

But let me make another obvious statement. Age verification is the result of what many now realize is the biggest and dumbest decision ever made in the Canadian beef industry. That is the the failure by the CFIA to boldly implement mandatory BSE testing of export beef immediately after the first case was diagnosed. Spare me the usual apologetics and bogus rationalizations – it’s all too late now anyway.

Having said all that, the side effect of producer group polarization has seen the return of that old cattle industry skeleton, the compulsory ABP checkoff. Some of the innocent might have thought the checkoff issue was resolved years ago with a producer referendum. But never underestimate cattle politics, the checkoff issue is always simmering, just waiting to arise at a politically opportune moment. It would seem that some of the groups which railed against the ABP have seen in their alliance with the government some hope to strike a blow at the ABP checkoff. They sense the ABP is in a weak position by throwing rocks at a government which controls checkoff legislation.

Proponents are using the using political rhetoric about accountability and choice, both of which most people would agree with. But this time producer groups are promoting a directed checkoff – which is a sanitized version of a compulsory checkoff. The checkoff remains compulsory but you get to direct it to the designated organization of your choice. For cash-starved voluntary producer groups such a possibility is irresistable.

It’s even caused the National Farmers Union to join the chorus. In a recent report on the state of the cattle industry (it has some good points), it couldn’t resist supporting the directed checkoff idea. Clearly it would want in on the gravy train of a directed checkoff.

In an interview with this editor, Minister Groeneveld stated the fate of the checkoff will be up to producers. Its an open-ended position – would that be the producers who support him? The minister doesn’t need a referendum to change the direction of the checkoff.

There is much in the ALMS that will benefit the beef and cattle business and the minister is to commended for his bold action. But being stubborn on mandatory verification is not worth the acrimony it has created. Mr. Minister, there are just two things you need to do to stop the political acrimony in the cattle industry and only you can do it – reach a compromise with the ABP, and support their undirected checkoff.

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