Better Beef Traceability Translates to Bigger Profits in Practice and On Paper

If you’re keeping tabs on Ontario’s beef industry this Local Food Week, you’ve seen how a company’s profile can grow when it markets its brand effectively, promotes itself tirelessly, and stands on values instead of gimmicks.

A prime example is VG Meats, which seems to be popping up everywhere. VG stands for Van Gronigen, a Simcoe, Ontario, family who have been retailing beef for 45 years.

Four young, industrious and principled brothers have taken over the reins (at least that’s the way it appears to the outside world), and their commitment to the beef industry is really amazing.

One of them, Kevin, is a former student of mine, known to his classmates as “VG” even as an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. He was popular with his fellow OAC Aggies, and now he and the other brothers are parlaying their sincerity into the kitchens of Ontario.

They’ve developed a welcoming and friendly public relations and marketing campaign. They’re all over social media to make sure they’re seen in the right places.

And, key to this column, VG Meats has its own traceability program for its beef (it calls beef farming its “pride and joy”).

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 3.17.18 PM“We are able to separate and categorize our beef through tenderness testing,” it claims on its website. “When we find that one isn’t tender enough we use our traceability system to understand why this may have occurred and make changes as needed. We are then able to sort out the less tender steaks and age them to ensure that our customer gets a tender steak, every time.”

Isn’t this what every steak buyer wants — a reliable source of tender, juicy, flavourful steak? Sure it is. And they’ll pay for it.

It’s this kind of thing that Oakville-based Value Chain Management International (VCMI) would like to see instituted across the board.

In a new report released yesterday, designed to coax more value out of Ontario’s beef sector specifically, the organization says every beef farm in the province – in fact, in Canada – should be part of a traceability program that would enable producers and downstream businesses to use traceability as a management tool.

It says this approach would enable the industry to capture new and preferred markets, in North America and further afield.

Now, Canada does have a cattle identification system in place, with RFID tags required for cattle leaving their place of birth, and retirement of those tags on slaughter.

And while that’s a start in the right direction, the report claims the current system’s main goal is to prevent diseased meat from being exported.

But, it asks, how about on-premise identification? Or mandatory recording of animal transportation?

These measures have been adopted by the Australia beef industry with great success, it claims.

For example, the country has become a preferred supplier to Asian and North American markets, where lowest cost is not the primary concern.

This, and how the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) enables producers and downstream businesses to reduce costs, have produced benefits that analysts estimate to be many times greater than the system’s costs to operate.

Layer on top of this the more than AUD200 million in net benefits that NLIS claims to have provided by enabling quality to be more effectively managed through the value chain, and the VCMI says the economic benefits are undeniable.

With differentiation being what it these days, especially to consumers on the hunt for branded, identifiable products, VCMI believes traceability is the way forward.

Establish industry-government partnerships to develop and manage the infrastructure required to collect and manage all this traceability data, it suggests.

And demonstrate the commercial and competitive advantages of implementing and maintaining an effective traceability system by connecting with stakeholders along the whole value chain.

This sounds logical, but there are some hitches, says the organization.

First, the industry has to come together with the will to make what it calls “challenging decisions” and address the litany of issues that have historically undermined the development of a traceability system. These include a fragmented industry culture, doubts about the value of traceability, disagreements over who owns data, and at least a dozen more issues put forward in the VCMI report.

But, it argues, the benefits of a traceability system are significant, and could extend to other sectors such as sheep, veal, goat and pork.

Being able to brand and then trace beef from farm to fork has shown to have pockets of success in Ontario, where herds are typically smaller and such efforts may be easier to manage than a huge western herd. But even some of Canada’s biggest producers are average in size by U.S. and South American commercial herd standards.

VCMI says we should capitalize on that natural advantage. We’re not too big in this country for a traceability program that takes current efforts to the next level. The question is, do we have the will?

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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2 Comments

J.Garlough

Hi Owen,

Thank you for sharing this story of the clear successes of the Van Gronigen brothers.

It is the accountability of the VG brothers at every point in the food chain/system which really appeals to me as a modern consumer. If I have questions or concerns about almost anything from animal care to processing to retail to the politics and business of farming it is very clear which VG brother our family could speak to.

Traceability is a mandatory requirement for accountability. However, The VG brothers have smartly set their goals far beyond “traceability” and are getting into the realm of transparent & true accountability not just to the end-consumer but to every one of their stakeholders and partners along the way. That’s why our family would pay a premium for VG Beef.

Getting the industry as a whole to improve traceability is no doubt a momentous task and even that doesn’t get you caught up… it’s only a first step to the level of accountability that many local farmers and local processors already offer.

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Owen

You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to write about progressive family-run companies such as VG Meats. I appreciate your comment and perspective on the need to go beyond obligatory traceability.

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