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April 3, 2009

Verified Beef Production learns from the world

Photo of cows in pasture.

New study gives an overview of other countries' progress in on-farm food safety

With consumers around the world demanding increasingly higher standards of food production, it's become clear to most Canadian producers that what they do at home is directly connected to how Canadian-produced food is seen around the world. Food safety is seen as a key link in building a brand management package that is marketable to consumers and others in the food chain.

But what do you do in a world where so many other countries are marketing around the same principles? The first step, says Terry Grajczyk, program manager of Verified Beef Production (VBP), Canada's on-farm food safety program for beef, is to be aware of what they are doing. That's why the Canadian On-Farm Food Safety (COFFS) Working Group, a multi-commodity organization that works on issues common to Canadian on-farm food safety programs, recently released a report comparing OFFS programs in several countries, including Canada, the U.S. and Australia.

Canada's position

Although comparing programs from other countries can be "like comparing apples to zebras," says Grajczyk, the bottom line is that what Canada is doing with its OFFS programs is fundamentally in line with what several competitors are doing. "That can give producers some comfort that the Canadian beef industry is competitive with other countries that are marketing around food safety."

Canadian characteristics. The VBP program is based on a series of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) designed to reduce or eliminate the possibility of a food safety concern on a beef cattle operation. In turn, SOPs are based on internationally-recognized Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) standards divided into "must do" and "recommended" categories.

Producers who choose to become registered in the VBP program are validated for these practices through a third-party, audit-style process. After an initial validation audit, participants declare their conformance by sending in their records or an annual self-declaration.

The program's strengths, says Grajczyk, are based in its standardized national approach, its foundation in established international standards, and its recognition by government. When designing the program, she says the goal was to take an optimum approach to international standards that would minimize the financial burden on participants. "A lot of international standards are designed for processing plants and other places where there are specific controls in place," she says. "However, it's difficult and costly to apply these standards consistently and thoroughly in the context of a farm or ranch because of the unpredictability of Mother Nature. We took the optimum, moderate approach and, going by what we're seeing in the COFFS Working Group report, we're in the ballpark compared to competitive countries."

The U.S. The U.S. Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program includes a more limited risk analysis than that attached to the VBP program and tends to focus more on education than compliance, says Grajczyk. Although there is no conformance assessment in the BQA program, some states have begun to put random audits in place.

"Also, there are several government conformance assessments for some types of quality management programs that some beef partnerships are using," says Grajczyk. "However, these tend to be limited to age, source and non-synthetic hormone treated cattle claims."

When it comes to producer requirements, the BQA approach to international standards differs from that used by the VBP program, says Grajczyk. "State BQA manuals typically include information about HACCP and how HACCP concepts can be used to define control points, identify potential hazards and establish operation-specific production practices. However, this approach does not identify which control points might be critical control points and which might be best managed through prerequisite practices and measures."

Australia. Australia currently has a program based on self-declaration with national identification included. However, it is planning on moving toward a more detailed program with conformance assessment based on random sampling, says Grajczyk. Presently, the Australian Livestock Production Assurance Quality Assurance program does not explicitly require application of HACCP principles or equivalent ISO 9001 requirements.

Lessons for beef producers

Over the past year the VBP program posted substantial growth, jumping from about 4,500 registered producers in the fall of 2007 to 8,500 by the fall of 2008. One reason is that Canada's VBP program fits the values central to success as a beef supplier to Canada and the world, says Grajczyk.

However, beef is just one piece of Canada's food puzzle, she says. "When beef producers become validated in the VBP program, they become part of an effort that is taking place in most every commodity. They become part of a network of 25 agricultural organizations representing 30 different commodities that come together to develop systems that are recognized by the Canadian government and the world.

"They also become part of a drive to brand Canada under the new Canadian Beef Advantage program, an effort intended to leverage Canada's animal health system, beef quality, and international perception as a clean, pristine environment into a global branding opportunity. The reality is that our major competitors are building their own brands as well and it's important we act aggressively to stay competitive."

Beef producers can get more information on the VBP program from the VBP Web site at www.verifiedbeef.org or by contacting one of the provincial VBP coordinators listed under "VBP Across Canada" on the Web site.