In 2018, McDonald’s became the first company in Canada to offer beef from certified sustainable sources. Harvey’s and others followed suit. But what does “sustainable” mean in this context? And who does the certifying?
“Well, McDonald’s has committed to source beef from operations certified to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s (CRSB) standard through the Canadian Beef Sustainability Framework,” says Shannon Argent, Business Manager at Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+). “So its suppliers need to demonstrate best practices on indicators such as soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare and workers’ rights. As for the certification… VBP+ takes care of that.”
VBP+ provides training and resources for producers to use to add value to their operations, and the certification, after an audit, to prove they have met the required standards. Certification must be renewed annually. There are 60 indicators, all assessed against 36 of the CRSB’s indicators and other equivalencies, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s on-farm Food Safety Recognition Program and the National Farmed Animal Care Assessment Framework (VBP+ is pursuing accreditation for the latter).
“We are the link between the producers’ education to deliver what consumers want and the proof that it is being done,” says Argent. “In getting accredited by multiple organizations, we can achieve multiple outcomes (certifications) for producers with one visit.”
Certification is voluntary. If a processor wants to make certified-sustainable beef available to its customers, it may encourage producers through financial incentives. And while an extra dollar in their pockets is great, many producers are keen to be part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions, food safety, antimicrobial resistance and animal care issues anyway. Education ups their game, and certification provides the proof of what they’re doing.
Each provincial commodity organization has a designated coordinator to provide webinars and workshops, and the national program provides an online training platform that is being updated to ensure content keeps up with the changing times. The coordinators educate hundreds of producers every year on what’s new in the field, how to implement best practices on their operation and how to document an audit. As such, education is the necessary first step to certification. A steady proportion of them advance to the full certification stage. Today, more than 60% of Canada’s beef production comes from VBP+-trained operations, and 20% of production comes from audited operations.
Proving sustainability through certification is one thing; demonstrating it to the public is another. As part of the education, producers are encouraged to contribute to debunking disinformation by opening their operations through social media to show the positive results of best practices.
Like every other sector, COVID-19 has slowed down the rate of certifications. To that end, VBP+ is considering remote audit technologies that can perform audits in locations where it’s not financially feasible to send an auditor. These technologies would be evaluated against an on-farm audit to make sure the outcomes are the same. If successful, they may provide a great opportunity to keep costs down in a low-margin market.
Genetics is another technology that plays a role in certification, as producers must demonstrate their innovations to improve quality and produce more beef using less resources. Testing using a tool like Delta Genomics’s EnVigour HX™ can be used to prove innovative practices. EnVigour HX™ is the first made-in-Canada genomics tool for crossbred beef cattle, combining parentage verification, genomic breed composition, and a simple Vigour Score (assessment of hybrid vigour) to assist in replacement selection.
“We often hear that beef production and its advantages and, conversely, how beef reaches customers are poorly understood,” says Argent. “We hope that, by providing these services and contributing to the broader message, VBP+ can help to bridge the gap.”