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July 4, 2008

Verified Beef Production backs beef value chain success

The Hagel family

VBP registration is key part of natural beef partnership

At least once a year, Jason Hagel of Hagel Feeders in Linden, Alberta, stands up in front of a group of consumers to talk to them about how he custom feeds the cattle which eventually end up in stores as beef produced under the Prairie Heritage Beef Producers (PHBP) label. A common question he's asked is "How can you prove that you're doing what you say you're doing when it comes to on-farm food safety?"

Although most beef producers would likely not find themselves in that kind of scenario, they also know that more and more consumers are asking the same question of all producers. For that reason, PHBP, a conglomerate of cattle producers which market themselves as "natural" beef produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products, has made registration in the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program a requirement for all of the 18 producers in its value chain.

"At the end of the day, VBP is a tool that helps us prove to consumers that we're doing what we say we're doing," says Hagel, who also feeds commodity cattle. "In the process, it's helping to build confidence among a growing segment of beef consumers that is looking for specific standards of safety in the beef they buy."

The Prairie Heritage approach

The Prairie Heritage system is a birth to finishing process focused on what the company calls "eco-committed" principles. Cattle are pastured on native and tame grasses, as well as grain industry by-products such as straw and screenings, on 14 family ranches located throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They are then short-fed on a diet of hay, alfalfa, barley silage and barley, followed by slaughter at a federally-inspected plant conforming to Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) standards.

Hagel Feeders, a fourth-generation central Alberta farm that has been custom feeding cattle since 1995, was approached by PHBP representatives in 2004 to be one of the feeding links in the PHBP value chain. Like many in the industry at the time, Hagel was reeling from the effects of the BSE crisis, so the prospect of feeding 1,000 head of cattle every day, 365 days a year was an impressive one. At the same time, he was sceptical that a completely antibiotic-free program would be competitive with commodity cattle from a health and production perspective.

"We thought it was going to be a pretty big challenge," he says. "In the first year, there was an 18 percent difference in feed conversion between the Prairie Heritage animals and our commodity cattle. That difference is closing, however. This past year there was only a seven percent difference between the two systems."

A major factor in closing this spread was trial and error. "When we first started feeding the Prairie Heritage cattle we were pushing them hard to get the yields up," he says. "However, we had to learn to hold back. PHBP does not believe in feeding excessive amounts for long periods of time. Instead, we let the cattle work for the feed they get."

The results of the PHBP process have paid off from an animal health perspective. "The cattle that go into the Prairie Heritage system really do not get sick. The procedures of the VBP program have played a big role in helping us keep the animals healthy without the use of antibiotics."

How VBP fits in

VBP is a grassroots-driven on-farm food safety program based on internationally-recognized Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. For Canada's beef industry, these principles have been adapted into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which cover animal health management, cattle shipping, medicated feed, pesticide control and training/communications. Registration in the VBP program has been a requirement of PHBP value chain members since the beginning of the partnership.

A key component of the VBP program is strong record keeping practices. Although Hagel already had an extensive record keeping program in place ("If you can't keep records on a custom feedlot, you won't be in business very long," he says), the practice took on a new perspective in the context of running a combination natural/commodity beef feedlot.

"First, we make sure that the commodity animals which receive antibiotic treatments are tagged, marked, and segregated into a separate pen with records kept on all of that activity," says Hagel. "From there, we keep really good records of what's being fed and to which animals. Any time we receive supplement, we document it and store it in a separate and clearly labelled storage area."

Flushing feed mixing equipment is a crucial step in making sure residues from treatments do not end up where they do not belong. "In order to avoid consumption by unintended cattle, we flush any containers that contain medicated feed. The flushed feed is then used or disposed of so it does not present a contamination risk to other feed."

An example of a practice that was driven by Hagel Feeders' registration in VBP is checking the cattle for unknown broken needles before shipping them for processing. In line with PHBP's commitment to humane animal handling, this step also gives Hagel the opportunity to inspect the truck for anything that may cause the animals discomfort in the shipping process. "Stress on animals is 85 percent of the reason cattle get sick," he says.

Building a market advantage

Ultimately, the standards that PHBP holds itself to, supported by the operating procedures of the VBP program, are there to build confidence in the product and, from there, build opportunity. Since Thrifty Foods became PHBP's first retailer in 2004, other supermarkets and a number of restaurants throughout Western Canada have begun to sell PHBP beef.

"It takes time to build an organization like PHBP," says Hagel. "Some of the retail stores are wary of bringing in new product because they do not always know what they're getting. In that regard, VBP is a good tool – we can direct retailers to the Web site and they can see that our production practices are based on internationally accepted standards. The bottom line is that it's not just a good tool for niche marketers, but for the profile of the whole beef industry."

More information is available at the VBP Web site at www.verifiedbeef.org or by contacting the VBP program directly at (306) 737-2290 or (403) 275-8558.