SCOTT TAYLOR, Canadian Meat Business Magazine 

For most Canadian beef producers, “sustainable” beef has always been a fact of life. It’s unlikely you’ll find a farmer or rancher in the country who doesn’t believe his operation is sustainable.

However, Sustainable Beef (yes, in capitals) has officially come to this country and Canada’s beef producers had better be prepared: Prepared for something that isn’t even defined yet.

As it is, Fawn Jackson believes Canadian cattlemen have a great story to tell and when anyone asks her about “the Sustainable Beef industry.” Jackson wants to do everything she can to take what is still a somewhat vague concept and make it clear and verifiable.

These days, that’s a tough job. However, it soon could get a lot easier. On Sept. 24 and 25 at Duncan Lake Ranch in Kelowna, B.C., the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef will hold its first major meeting. At least, it will be the first major get-together since the group was formed back in June.

At this meeting, a growing number of eclectic partners, including the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, McDonald’s Restaurants, the World Wildlife Federation, Loblaws, Nature Canada, Costco, Cargill, the Manitoba Beef Producers, the Royal Bank, Wal-Mart, the Barley Council of Canada, Merck Animal Health, the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association, the Alberta Beef Producers, the Beef Farmers of Ontario, A & W Restaurants, the Alberta Conservation Association and Ducks Unlimited will come together to clearly establish the Sustainable Beef industry in Canada.

Why? Because it will probably be the most important thing Canadian beef producers do for the next two years even though many aren’t sure want it is they’re supposed to be doing. After all, McDonald’s Canada purchased 70 million pounds of Canadian beef last year and McDonald’s has made it extremely clear that by 2016, the company will purchase only “verified Sustainable Beef.”McDonalds_SustainableBeef_1020

This should come as no surprise to anyone in the industry. McDonald’s, along with Cargill, JBS Foods and a slew of other multinationals, was at the forefront of the creation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef back in 2011.

By its own definition, “The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative developed to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through leadership, science and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration. The GRSB envisions a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.”

And at the global level, those are “The Three Pillars” that guide the GRSB: “That Sustainable Beef is (1) Environmentally sound, (2) Socially Responsible and (3) Economically viable.” Period.

Of course, it’s important to note that The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was not created by some eco-conscious committee at the United Nations. Instead, it’s an initiative of McDonald’s Restaurants, Cargill, Elanco Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Wal-Mart, JBS Food, Solidaridad (a Dutch organization that believes in fair and sustainable trade) and the World Wildlife Fund.

As a result of its influence on the GRSB, McDonald’s chose Canada — specifically Alberta — over Australia and Europe in May of 2014 as the site of its first pilot project in its somewhat ambitious goal to serve only “Sustainable Beef” in its restaurants around the world. In many ways, Alberta is the perfect choice: The province is home to about 40% of Canada’s cattle herd and about 80% of the country’s beef processing. It also has more experience in beef production than most regions of the planet.

“We’ve got all the building blocks right here,” said Bryan Walton, chief executive of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. “We’re a beef nation. We have the land base, we have the know-how and we have the infrastructure.”

According to Jackson, they also have the animal welfare standards.

“Canada’s animal welfare standards made it a natural fit for a pilot project like this,” Jackson said proudly. “We really are global leaders in this area.”

That’s true and yet “Sustainable Beef” is an initiative that’s still looking for a definition, at least in terms of practicality and application. Currently, there is no action plan, only the hypothetical. So now that McDonald’s has forged ahead and put the spotlight on Alberta to be the testing ground, it’s a lot like putting the cart before the horse inasmuch as the largest purchaser of beef in Canada has launched the first step without (a) a plan and (b) a proven way to track and achieve the goal of serving nothing but Sustainable Beef.

The meeting in September will attempt to provide an applicable timeline and turn something that is still a wonderful idea — a legitimate idea, to be sure — into an actual working model with identifiable scope.

Jackson, the Manager of Environment and Sustainability for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association isn’t necessarily the driving force behind Sustainable Beef in Canada. That title would probably go to McDonald’s. However, Jackson is convinced that the initiative is good for everyone in the industry and like many of her colleagues at the CCA, she is committed to making it work.

“It’s clear to me and many of our partners that the market is sending a pretty strong message that consumers want sustainable products and they also want proof of that sustainability,” Jackson said during a telephone interview from her office in Calgary.

“McDonald’s has announced a commitment to source verified sustainable beef by 2016. A&W currently claims its beef has been raised at the leading edge of sustainable production and Wal-Mart continually promises to deliver more sustainable agricultural products. So we (The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association) have been taking great strides to ensure that Canadian cattle producers are appropriately prepared to address this growing consumer and market demand.”

Jackson comes by her position at the CCA honestly. After all, she grew up on a purebred Charolais, Simmental and seed farm in Inglis, Man., near the Saskatchewan border. She staffs the CCA’s environment committee and is part of a handful of research initiatives involving industry, government and international federations. She represents Canadian cattle producers at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, the International Meat Secretariat Sustainable Meat Committee and the Five Nations Beef Alliance Sustainability Committee. In fact, she actually has played the lead role in setting up the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

And even she has written: “There is no precise definition of Sustainable Beef and how sustainable beef production is proven continues to be a mystery.”

“That’s true, but the role of research, technology, innovation and communication hold steadfast as the foundation for making ‘sustainable’ decisions by all members of the value chain,” she added.

Still, even the major stakeholders have no official definition. McDonald’s Corp.’s sustainability vice president Bob Langert publicly addressed the issue of sustainable beef and admitted there was “a difficulty defining it.” Bryan Weech, director of livestock agriculture for the World Wildlife Fund, told The Huffington Post that “there is no one, universally accepted definition for beef sustainability.”

Soon, however, the rubber will hit the road and for beef producers this seemingly beneficial concept without a definition should be frightening. Amazingly, it is not.

“McDonald’s decision to pilot its sustainable beef program in Canada is a win for producers,” Alberta Beef Producers president Greg Bowie told the Calgary Herald. “McDonald’s has steadfastly pledged it won’t impose rules on how to raise cattle. Instead, it has promised to work with producers, feeders and packers to create practical guidelines on environmental stewardship, animal health and welfare, and food safety.

“A lot of these things are going to be things that producers are doing anyhow. They’re just going to come up with a means of proving that the producer is doing it.”

According to Jackson, the key to verifying McDonald’s massive beef purchases indeed come from producers that are practising sustainable farming and production is the Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS 2.0), an economically viable traceability and information transfer system.

According to the CCA, “BIXS 2.0 is a database and web application that will assist in the capture and exchange of economically beneficial individual animal and carcass data across the Canadian beef supply chain.”

“Sustainable beef is a full life cycle program from birth to slaughter to retail,” explained Jackson. “For the CCA, BIXS 2.0 will remain the main tracking system. It can be difficult to exchange information from one side of the program to the other and so BIXS 2.0 enables that.”

In the meantime, Canada’s new Verified Beef Production program is designed to uphold food safety standards during processing, Jackson added. It will soon cover other areas including animal care and biodiversity.

Of course, that’s why it’s no surprise that various agriculture writers, ranchers and executives within the beef industry have already suggested that verifying and measuring the sustainability is nothing more than ensuring that everyone in the industry lives up to the standards that most people are following right now.

Regardless, the CCA maintains that it will be able to track a system that isn’t yet clearly defined, while McDonald’s claims it isn’t going to tell producers what to do. For now, that means people like Jackson are telling producers to “just keep doing what you’re doing.”

And that means, when McDonald’s Canada’s manager of sustainability, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell tells the Huffington Post, “I believe that right now, we are purchasing lots and lots of sustainable beef,” the keep-doing-what-you’re-doing meme makes sense.

Jackson definitely agrees with that sentiment, but she’s also quick to point out that learning and improving aren’t bad things.

“We can all get behind on keeping up to date on potential improvements and it’s easy to do things the way we’ve always done,” Jackson wrote. “However, striving to continually improve production practices contributes to the economic, environmental and social viability of every operation and the industry as a whole.”

In the meantime, McDonald’s Canada, which already sources all of its beef from Canadian suppliers, has created a mandate that is quite clear: “Close to 60 years ago, McDonald’s started out as a hamburger destination. Today, we offer a range of menu choices, but burgers remain some of our most iconic menu items. That’s just one reason we want to do our part to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare. Plus, we envision doing all of this while providing affordability and quality, along with economic viability for those who raise cattle and produce beef.”

Now, it’s up to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to get the job done. At the meeting in Kelowna in September, the conversation will start with a definition of Sustainable Beef, probably morph into a discussion of economic viability and then branch out into areas like these, that will concern both consumers and producers:

(1) What is driving the initiative? Animal welfare? Carbon foot-printing? Eco-consciousness?

(2) Can enough beef be produced in a Sustainable Beef world to fulfil the demand? If not, then what is this about? Is it a hip endeavor to do something to help the planet or simply a slick advertising campaign?

(3) Is the day coming when beef that is produced on a farm that is considered NOT to be Sustainable becomes something akin to conflict diamonds? Will buying from an alleged Non-Sustainable farm be like buying cheap goods on the black market and will consumers be prepared to take a chance on a cheaper, non-sustainable, product?

Regardless, September’s meeting will be crucial to the future of Canadian beef production.

“The future of sustainable production sourcing and verification might be a bit blurry yet, but Canadian producers have established themselves as world leaders in animal care, production efficiencies and land management,” Jackson wrote. “They are in an excellent position to respond to future market demands.”

Indeed. While McDonald’s is not paying a premium to be the face of Sustainable Beef, it’s no secret that the folks at McDonald’s Canada are going to try to make the Big Mac an eco-conscious sandwich. It will be up to the Canadian Beef Producers to make that happen and it would appear those producers are excited about the challenge.

“That’s true, McDonald’s is not paying a premium for this, but one of the pillars of the Global Roundtable is economic viability,” Jackson said. “Economic viability will be an important issue for us in Canada and, of course, being the first to land a deal with McDonald’s could give our market a significant edge internationally.”

The one thing Jackson always makes clear is that “beef is already a product that people love.” For her, The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef will make consumers love the product even more.

“More than anything else, the Sustainable Beef project will provide everyone with more information about beef production,” said Jackson. “And I believe that consumers want more information about a product they already love. And that can’t be anything but good for our industry.

“As I see it, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Canadian beef producers have a great story to tell.”