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June 1, 2010

What beef producers need to know about optional VBP audits

Lyle McNichol has audited more than 60 operations.

A veteran auditor says many beef producers are likely closer than they think.

Over the past few years Lyle McNichol has met a lot of beef producers in his role as an auditor with the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program. He has audited more than 60 operations in Manitoba and nearby Saskatchewan, ranging from small, 25 cow-operations supported by people who work primarily off the farm, to 30,000 plus head commercial feedlots with professional staff.

He's learned a lot of things from that wide ranging experience with Canada's beef on-farm food safety program, but one thing he has learned above all. Most beef producers who are on the VBP program will likely find that being audited is a lot easier than they might think.

When McNichol talks beef he is talking an industry that has been his life's work. He retired as an extension agent with the province of Manitoba after many years of working with beef producers. Then, looking for a new challenge, he became trained as an auditor for VBP, and also for the on-farm food safety program in the dairy industry.

It is work with producers he finds rewarding. While he doesn't state it openly, it is not hard to see he is quite proud of the effort beef producers make to raise their animals properly.

That said, he knows that while some producers are relaxed when he visits, some are not sure, and some are noticeably uptight. "I try to make the visit as producer friendly as possible," he says. "I explain what we are doing, and why some questions may not apply to their operation."

The VBP commitment

"In simple terms, there are three parts to the commitment producers make under VBP that are being checked in an audit," he says. "First is the commitment producers make by saying 'This is what I'm doing on my operation to produce safe beef.' Second, is the commitment 'If I make a mistake, this is the corrective action I will take.' That might be contacting a vet or removing the animal from the marketing chain. Third, is the commitment, 'These are my records that show I'm doing what I say I'm doing.'"

People have the most concern about records, he says. What exactly will be required? They have a Revenue Canada style audit in their minds and it's not usually a pleasant thought.

In reality, a VBP audit is thorough, but nowhere near as complicated. A normal VBP audit is relatively quick, about two to three hours in total. Many take less. It depends on the complexity of the operation, how well organized the records are and how much the producer wants to discuss things, says McNichol.

One of the main areas is records that are thorough and easily understood. McNichol has worked with elaborate electronic record keeping systems to small, hand written ones, and both have done the job. He smiles as he tells of producers with handwritten records who can tell you with pride anything you want to know about any animal on their place.

A main area is how drugs are handled. Are they stored properly, refrigerated or kept away from light if necessary, how equipment and needles are stored and managed. Do records show that drugs are not used off-label or if they are that a veterinarian prescription is on file? Are proper withdrawal times are followed? Are feeds stored and managed in a way that they can't get contaminated with petroleum products or things like treated seed.

If some aspect of record keeping is not up to standard, then a corrective action is completed, says McNichol. Often the situation can be corrected on the spot; sometimes a correction needs to be made and the records sent in for approval.

Shipping records

One of the most common problems is that producers fail to date a withdrawal time check for animals that get shipped. That record indicates drugs were used properly, withdrawal times were followed, and that there are no broken needles in animals. Often producers have followed those rules but just fail to take the time to date the paperwork.

"It shows they have made the important check before sorting or loading. That's why it's so important that producers follow the basic VBP standard as a final check on potential mix-ups or suspected broken needles.

"Most beef producers are people of integrity, but there is a chance that an animal may have to be emergency slaughtered or resold. If that was originally your animal, and the next buyer is not VBP aware, your reputation could be damaged and you may in fact be liable for something that is not your fault unless you have records to prove it's not."

Verifying VBP value

McNichol believes that VBP is ultimately about being accountable and the audit is the ultimate proof of that. Quite a few people who are involved in VBP are using direct marketing. They want to be able to say they are part of this program and here are the standards we are following.

"There are a lot more people closer to being at an auditable stage than they may realize," he says. "It's pretty simple to test yourself. Go through your records and audit your own drugs. I've gone through places that will have good records, but overlook outdated drugs like an old bottle of medicine their father used to treat a horse."

A lot of programs are coming up that will require this sort of record keeping. That's just one more reason to get involved in VBP and get to the audit stage.

Note: Partial support for this article provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Food Safety Systems Development Fund.