The newly launched Verified Beef Production Plus program is taking Canada one step closer in its quest towards verified sustainable beef, says one of its designers.
“This is just from my perspective, but we have always had early adopters — the people who believe in it — but there have never been clear market signals,” said Cecilie Fleming, chair of the committee that revamped the original VBP program.
“People did it just because it was the right thing to do. Now we’re getting market signals that the end users are looking for those attributes. No longer can we say what we’re doing — they are asking us to demonstrate what we’re doing.”
VBP Plus builds off the original Verified Beef Production, which focused on on-farm food safety. The new voluntary program — open to cow/calf producers, backgrounders and feedlot owners — contains modules that address animal care, biosecurity, and environmental sustainability. It is part of the Canadian Cattlemen’s programming, approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and meets the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s recently drafted indicators for sustainable beef.
The rollout of VBP Plus also seems timely, since retailers such as Earls Restaurants and McDonald’s have recently put an emphasis on sourcing sustainable beef. But the timing is coincidental as VBP Plus has been in development since 2013.
“This is part of the push to define sustainable beef and our program is one of the programs that can make that happen,” said Fleming, who raises Angus seedstock near Granum. “My phone, and the provincial co-ordinator’s phone, has been ringing off the hook. Before this was coming, people knew it was coming and they wanted it, especially after a lot of discussion and social media came to light with Earls.
“There was evidence that we didn’t really have a full robust program and now we do. It’s not in reaction to Earls — it’s just our timing.”
Consumers’ growing interest in how cattle are raised means food retailers and the food service sector are also interested in sustainable beef, said the national manager of VBP Plus.
“This gives us the opportunity to tell them what we’re doing,” said Terry Grajczyk, a producer from Zihner, Sask. “We hope producers understand that this is not a make-work project. This is the customer saying they want to know.”
VBP Plus will “mirror” the standards being developed by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, added Fleming.
“We are working in tandem and following the indicators are in all of our processes,” she said. “If we find gaps, we’ll address the gaps. We want to be there and be a program that meets the needs of the CRSB.”
Betty Green, Manitoba Beef Producers’ co-ordinator for VPB, says the programs have been readily adopted in Manitoba, with more than 10 per cent of producers fully enrolled in the basic VBP and a third in various stages of adoption.
“Producers need to see a reason to adopt them, some benefit, and I think they do,” Green said.
She added that in most cases it didn’t amount to major changes for beef producers in Manitoba so much as a bit more record-keeping and some third-party verifications.
“Frequently the question is ‘What am I going to have to change?’” Green said. “The answer is ‘Really, not very much.’”
Green says she expects if producers see a similar benefit, and similar expectations from customers, VBP Plus will be readily adopted too.
How it works
VBP Plus is a national program administered by each province and was built off the National Beef Code of Practice, national biosecurity standards, and components of each province’s Environmental Farm Plan. Any producer who has taken VBP will have to sign up to take the additional modules.
“What we tell producers is, ‘Take a look at what it is and make sure you understand what it isn’t,’” said Grajczyk. “If you want to pick up the voluntary audit, you can.”
Some beef programs require an audit, and that option is available to anyone in the program. Many producers find that they need to make some adjustments to their operation once they have gone through the audit.
“It’s a voluntary program, but some retailers and wholesalers are saying that they would like producers on this (audited) program,” said Grajczyk. “If producers get themselves educated on the implementation and the outcome, they will be able to meet the needs of some buyers down the road.”
MBP’s Green echoed that sentiment, saying it’s becoming clear to producers that verification is the way of the future.
“This is the message we’re getting from retails, from MacDonalds on — they want verification,” Green said. “It’s what’s coming down the pipe at us.”
Producers, industry professionals, scientists, and members of the sustainable beef roundtable were involved in the development of VBP Plus.
There are two types of ways that producers can be involved with the program — the first level is classed as “trained” and the second as “registered.”
Nearly 20,000 operations across the country are trained in the original VBP, and between 1,300 and 1,400 are already fully registered in VBP Plus (which means that they have gone through an audit). Producers on the program have to maintain a certain level of record-keeping, complete self-assessments, and be open to voluntary audits, but they are not subjected to third-party audits every year.
The fee for VBP Plus ranges from $400 to $750, depending on the complexity of the operation audited. The fees pay for the cost of the audits.
Producers who want to participate need to get a copy of the producer manual and follow the summary checklist, which defines the outcome of the program. Any producer who has gone through the McDonald’s pilot program will already meet many of the VBP Plus requirements.
“There’s no question that in the last four to five years, if you listen to a market expert, that the market has become increasingly interested in what we do at the farm level,” said Grajczyk. “This will sort of demonstrate what gets done.”
With files from Gord Gilmour