What beef producers are asking about VBP+
It's their program and they are curious about its next generation
Posted: September 24, 2015
By: Terry Hockaday
There will be big changes in Canada's Verified Beef Production (VBP) program this coming year.
Designed originally as the national on-farm food safety program for beef it has slowly and steadily gained respect through industry channels. Today, it is about to graduate into a new era called VBP+ adding new modules for biosecurity, animal care and environmental stewardship.
That's a big change. How exactly will this be done? What will it mean for producers on the program and their industry?
The simple answer is "It's goal is simple but the background work is complex," says Manitoba cattle producer, Betty Green. As the Manitoba provincial VBP coordinator and part of the VBP+ development team she has sat in on many of the meetings and listened to the chatter in the hallways.
"It's complex because there are a lot of parts and players to be brought together, but simple because the goal will be a practical, flexible plan that works well in the field.
"The early stages of this have been incredibly promising for producers, "she says. "But this is a system in evolution with many players at the table and there aren't clear answers on everything. So producers will also have to have a bit of patience as this unfolds."
Here are top questions she and her coordinator cohorts across the country are getting from beef producers.
1. Remind us why we are doing this and why VBP? Beef markets around the world are asking for transparency and accountability. Social license and consumer trust are powerful. With a world asking for more information and more proof points, participation in program such as VBP is important.
The industry goal of VBP+ is a systematic approach by which beef sustainability can be assessed. "One national verified sustainable industry program for beef avoids costly and annoying duplication," says Green. "And verified sustainability should help build Canada's brand domestically and internationally."
2. How does this fit with industry sustainability efforts? VBP+ is an integral part of current high profile industry sustainability branding efforts. Most important, it is an active participant in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef national project. On the industry side, McDonald's, Loblaws and others which are building sustainability into brands are interested in linking with this effort.
There has been much cross pollination during these processes and solid collaboration with VBP+ development which has been really positive, says Green. "For example, among the reasons McDonald's chose Canada for its sustainability pilot was that Canada stood out as having shown leadership through the VBP program. (Learn more about how McDonald's sees its future here.)
"However it's also important to remember, the VBP program is independent of these industry initiatives and must be strong in and of itself. These program changes will strengthen VBP's ability to enhance producer interests regardless of where those programs ultimately head."
3. How have these modules been developed? It has been a lot of work, says Green. The goal was a systematic approach to determining what the on-farm risks to sustainability were and to build a program to give consumers confidence in production practices.
A key overarching criterion for all of these modules was that we did not reinvent the wheel," she says. "Wherever possible we worked with existing programs and processes such as Environmental Farm Plans or animal care codes.
First step was to do a generic risk assessment. "We are looking at actual operations that are being optimally managed to determine what could go wrong that could create a high risk situation for the animal and the environment. We wanted real world situations. These were blind tests where producers did not know the questions that would be asked or be coached on answers.
"We wanted to describe the general risks in enough detail that actual risk could be determined and decide what was measurable. Not all risks are measurable and some are very low risk."
Next will be to develop a very simple overview chapter to add to the current VBP program to describe what we were after in each area and how that would be accomplished. It's a summary because there is already a lot of material out there in these areas. And the current food safety program is a strong base because so many of these other areas connect directly to existing food safety and animal health practices.
4. When and how will the new modules be introduced? The risk assessments are being completed with pilot farms, feedlot and ranches. The information from these pilots will be assessed over the winter, reviewed within the CRSB processes and auditable points will be finalized by the spring of 2016.
"Then we need to determine how to phase them into the industry," says Green. "We want to keep our costs low and we will work with the McDonald's project and CRSB to determine the best way to handle this.
"One thing we have learned to date is that producers are comfortable with VBP being integral," says Green ((See article below)).
As the industry looks at implementation it has to be able to validate what is being done at the farm level. The industry is working to determine exactly how this will work in its final form. Various options are being considered from self-assessments initially to reviewing a few sample records over time. The commitment is that this will not be onerous for producers.
5. How will it fit producers from very large to small? This program is designed to be scalable. It is outcomes-based so whether you have 40 cows or a 10,000 head feedlot the goal is the same.
For example, protecting animals from the cold is the same outcome regardless of where you are in Canada. However the approaches may be different.
6. What if we have questions? What will VBP+ mean for brands like Ontario Corn-Fed Beef? Will it fit small producers in the PEI or large feedlots in Western Canada?
VBP provincial coordinators from across Canada have been an integral part of this industry development. Producers who have questions can reach their coordinator here.
First VBP+ pilots calmed producers
Initial feedback shows the role of VBP is supported
It's by no means an official measurement but the first producer pilot tests of the new Verified Beef Production (VBP) have sent an important message to those involved in introducing new modules for the program. Producers seem to understand the role that VBP plays in the new world of sustainability and their role as an individual producer.
"The selection of producers was done to get a realistic view of how these new modules for biosecurity, animal care and environmental stewardship would work in actual operations," says Betty Green, VBP coordinator for Manitoba who was involved with the pilots.
Producers were selected at random, says Green. "We wanted optimally managed operations but these were blind tests; producers were not coached ahead of time in what would be asked or what their responses should be."
"There was no question that initially producers were concerned that new modules would add a lot of paperwork and huge time requirements," she says. "But after the audit they commented that they really appreciated that we respected their time and effort and that they were glad we were using existing programs to build on such as VBP, BIXS and Environmental Farm Plans.
"They appreciated that having a fresh set of eyes helped them catch things that they might have missed and confirmed that they were on the right track and doing a good job.
"And while they felt that some of the questions were tough at first glance, such as how to decide when to euthanize an animal, they understood those were the questions that really needed to be asked."
That initial response was positive news for program organizers, says Green, and hopefully means support will grow across the country as VBP+ is implemented.