Expanded mandate means higher cost for VBP Plus audits

The national beef certification program has expanded from on-farm food safety to include sustainability, biosecurity and animal welfare

The Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP Plus) program will come with a higher price tag during its second year in Manitoba, but providers say the jump is needed to keep the program cost neutral.

Audit costs have increased from $200 to $300 as of May 20.

Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Brian Lemon says he believes the increase will cover costs on average, although the cost of providing audits varies between farms.

“Verified Beef (Production) Plus is a much broader program that includes more than just the on-farm food safety,” Lemon said. “It includes animal welfare. It includes environmental sustainability and those sorts of other modules, which is why the ‘Plus,’ but also why the audits are a lot more involved and a lot more goes into an audit. That’s the unfortunate reality and, as the audits get more complicated, the costs for those audits have to go up.”

Although a national program, audit costs are controlled provincially.

The joint initiative between the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Beef Cattle Research Council and federal government is in the midst of switching from the previous Verified Beef Production program. The initial program was expanded last year with the launch of VBP Plus to include biosecurity, environmental stewardship and animal care.

“The main reason we’re doing it is to improve public trust,” Virgil Lowe, VBP Plus business manager, said. “We know that the production practices on farm in Canada are generally very good, but we can’t tell people that.”

Providing proof

Lowe used the example of the Earls controversy last year, when the restaurant chain shifted from Canadian beef to an American supplier with “certified humane” meat.

The decision launched public backlash. Earls backed down after almost two months, but maintained its decision to buy beef raised without steroids, added hormones or antibiotics, according to Earls president Mo Jessa in July 2016. The chain said it would look for Canadian suppliers to meet its stipulations.

“VBP is designed to be the tool that gives the rest of the industry the ability to say, ‘This is how we raise our cattle and we know that because we checked,’” Lowe said.

No buyers currently require VBP Plus certification to his knowledge, Lowe said, but added that there is speculation that verification may become a requirement for some buyers or programs in the future.

Lowe was unsure how many new or transitioned members have registered with the expanded program. Collectively, 1,500 producers were registered with VBP and VBP Plus last year.

Lemon, likewise, said he was unsure how many Manitoba producers were registered.

“Our uptake is good in terms of people and producers taking the workshops and signing up. We would certainly like to see it better,” he said, noting that Manitoba Beef Producers would ideally like to see all producers in the province verified with the program.

A smaller number of producers have completed the audit process, Lemon said.

Making the shift

Existing Verified Beef Production members will be able to transition into the new program as of their next renewal, while new registrants will enter the new program directly.

VBP Plus training includes a series of workshops, webinars, resource materials or call-in conferences. Producers are then expected to implement that training on their own operations. Existing VBP members must also be trained in the new modules and have provincial co-ordinators confirm “they have either done the training or demonstrated knowledge in those three new modules,” before transitioning, Lowe said.

“You attend training or do online training, which is not onerous,” he said. “The in-person workshops are all done in an evening, so sort of a two- to three-hours-type thing, or the online training can be done in about two hours.”

Provincial co-ordinators provide enrolment forms and self-evaluations following training.

“This is sort of where the rubber meets the road,” Lowe said. “As you go through self-assessment and see where your operation is in relation to VBP Plus criteria, then you would send that back into the co-ordinator; they would review it and maybe you would talk to them about some areas of improvement or further training.”

Record-keeping is often among the most significant changes, Lowe said.

Cow-calf operations are required to provide at least six months of records as part of the process, while feedlots must provide a minimum three months’ worth of records.

“Feedlots will be required to complete a feedlot cattle chute, side handling and pen condition assessment,” the latest Manitoba Beef Producers newsletter read.

Once criteria are met, farms are evaluated through a 3-1/2 hour audit. The time between registration and successful audit completion will vary from operation to operation.

Training comes at no charge, Lowe said, although a fee is being considered for online webinars to recoup costs.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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