After being the first to source and track “verified sustainable” beef for McDonald’s, the Canadian cattle industry has a new challenge — create its own standards that all of its buyers can use.
The wrap-up event drew more than 300 ranchers and industry players to celebrate the accomplishment — a sharp contrast to the quiet, behind-the-scenes start to the project, which only became public knowledge in May 2014, when Farm Business Communications broke the story.
Attendees praised the fast-food giant, the largest buyer of Canadian beef, for choosing Canada for its global pilot.
“Not many people are aware of the actual investment that McDonald’s has put in our Canadian industry,” said Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, chair of Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
“Their time and their financial commitment to this has been a gift for us. We would never have been given that kick in the butt to get this off the ground as quickly as we have.”
The roundtable, the Canadian cousin of a global organization that launched the push for sustainable beef, was created just as the McDonald’s pilot was being conceived. It worked with the company to develop its “indicators,” which cover areas such as environmental stewardship, animal health and welfare, and food safety in beef production.
And although the pilot project is over, it was clear McDonald’s expects the roundtable to create a national standard that will cover the entire Canadian beef supply chain.
“For McDonald’s, it’s the end and the beginning,” said Andrew Brazier, director of the company’s worldwide supply chain. “McDonald’s will have a long vested interest in the industry and this will evolve into the next stage of our partnership with Canadian beef.”
Throughout the 2-1/2 years of the pilot project, McDonald’s tracked and verified 8,967 cattle from birth to burger. That fulfilled its bold promise in early 2014 to begin sourcing sustainable beef by this year.
“Of these almost 9,000 head of cattle that came through the system, they came from 13 of 20 verified feedlots and 86 of 121 ranches,” said Emily Murray, general manager of the Cargill plant in Spruce Grove, Alta. that produces beef patties for McDonald’s Canada.
“This supply chain is not about one ranch or one feedlot. We needed the entire group of people that participated in the pilot to make this 9,000 cattle happen.
“This initiative was to build consumer confidence in the Canadian beef industry as a whole. The initiative was not about creating winners and losers, but about all doing the right thing together.”
Now it’s up to the Canadian roundtable to take on the initiative.
“McDonald’s has got us off on the right foot,” said Fawn Jackson, the roundtable’s executive director who is also manager of environment and sustainability with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“Now, with the pilot concluding, we’re going to be transitioning to developing a national framework to source and supply verified sustainable beef. The team will take that information and accelerate the implementation of the verification framework all across Canada on an even bigger scale.”
But even though McDonald’s has already served 2.4 million burgers made of verified sustainable Canadian beef, it will take until the end of 2017 before a similar national system is up and running.
“We will get it right, and this will take time,” said Jackson.
Certification was a critical component to the McDonald’s pilot, with the company using a third-party auditor named Where Food Comes From. It visited and verified 154 ranches, 24 feedlots, both Canadian packers, and the Spruce Grove burger plant.
But the roundtable won’t take on the role of auditor, said Copithorne-Barnes.
“Our focus will be on facilitating what the framework of sustainability will look like here in Canada,” said Copithorne-Barnes. “We’re not going to be a verifier. Our purpose is to create whatever tools will be necessary to design a program or label that we, the Canadian industry, will be able to live with.”
The industry will use a national sustainability assessment (also called a life cycle analysis) to create its own indicators.
“We are absolutely committed to creating a framework that is applicable and usable to producers, but also equally committed to creating a framework that is meaningful to consumers,” said Jackson.
While McDonald’s verification process found that, by and large, Canadian beef operations have a good-news story to tell, it also found there is still room for improvement.
Cow-calf operations across the country were audited (although most were in Alberta and Saskatchewan) and ranged in size from 12 to 7,000 head. They were scored on a scale of 1 (entry) to 5 (excellent) and the average scores were typically 3s and 4s.
Many demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainable grazing systems and strong support for rural communities, but some lost points for not being registered with BIXS (Beef InfoXchange System) or having enrolled in the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program.
And some were given entry-level marks because they didn’t have adequate documentation for pharmaceuticals, said Lee Ann Saunders, president of Where Food Comes From, the independent auditor for the pilot project.
“This continues to be a question for consumers, so we need to keep in mind that we have strong animal health plans in place that are documented, and we have really good record-keeping plans and treatment programs and plans,” said Saunders.
Information sharing could be improved, she said.
“The inputting of birthdates into the tracking system and the scanning and logging of RFID tags becomes really important as you look at the chain of custody and share information up and down the supply chain,” she said.
Other operations were given entry-level scores because they neglected to protect riparian areas and waterways. Feedlots that scored low were not involved with BIXS or VBP. In general, the feedlot industry had sophisticated food safety and hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) programs.
To keep their verified status, participants who were audited will continue to submit paperwork to McDonald’s and will be grandfathered once the new national system is up and running.