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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- CERTIFYING FOR DOLLARS

Wes Ishmael

Forget all of the halfwit, crackpot dunderheads pressing their political agendas with the supposed belief that a packrat has at least as many rights as a newborn baby. It's beef customers who are raising the stakes for verification of animal care and handling.

In fact, it's BIG beef customers.

“Burger King will not, beginning in the year 2002, accept any meat from a packer that hasn't been castrated, dehorned and healed by the time it goes to the stocker pasture,” said Gary Smith, world renowned meat scientist, reporting the most recent move by a food giant to increase demands of its suppliers in the name of serving its consumers.

By the end of June, Burger King had taken some of its own, “Have it Your Way,” advice by announcing comprehensive food animal handling guidelines and audits. Keep in mind Burger King is one of the largest beef buyers in the land. All told, across 11,350 restaurants in 50 states and international territories world-wide, the burger-based business posted $11.4 billion in 2000 sales.

According to company officials, “The new guidelines will require suppliers to the Burger King® system to adhere to the strictest standards in the industry in the care, housing, transportation and slaughter of cattle and swine and poultry.”

Among the cattle-specific guidelines are animal handling audit-verified requirements that packing plants must adhere to if they want to continue supplying product to Burger King. Initial audits of packer suppliers will begin by the end of October.

Closer to the pasture, in addition to the castration and dehorning requirements already mentioned, Burger King also discourages branding, wattling and severe ear notching.

“Burger King will also monitor developments in the areas of genetics, thermal comfort of animals, air quality of animals in closed environments, emergency procedures for failure of automated systems, on-farm euthanasia methods and improving the manner by which animals are transported,” say company officials. “The company will encourage the adoption of appropriate, science-based improvements in any of these areas if they promise to result in more humane conditions for food animals.”

Again, this isn't a ream of feel-good paper for consumer perception, these practices will be audited through announced and surprise visits to ensure compliance. “These audits will determine which suppliers will be approved to supply the Burger King system based on the supplier's actual food handling and safety practices,” say company spokesmen.

And that ain't all.

Putting Teeth in Enforcement

At the same time, the fast food behemoth issued its supplier guidelines, it also petitioned USDA to fully and actively enforce the federal Humane Slaughter Act. In its petition, Burger King reported that independent members of its own animal well-being advisory committee expressed “significant” concerns over the lack of enforcement of the federal law.

Members of that advisory committee include plenty of folks the beef industry holds in high regard: folks like Temple Grandin of Colorado State University; Janice Swanson of Kansas State University; and David Fraser of the University of British Columbia.

For perspective, based on slaughterhouse audits conducted by Grandin in 1996, only about 25 percent of USDA inspectors were enforcing the Act.     

“Burger King is a company committed to the humane treatment of food animals used for our products,” says John Dasburg, Burger King chairman, chief executive officer and president. “Our new guidelines and audits are the right thing to do.”

Fanning the Flames

Certainly, the more cynical among us might dismiss these new guidelines as a tactic to catch up with fast-food leader, McDonalds Corporation—which has been auditing supplier packinghouses since 1999—or at the very least as a way to hold at bay animal rights activists who threatened a global boycott last winter. Don't succumb to that temptation.

Fact of the matter is, a growing number of existing volume-heavy systems (like fast food restaurants and grocery retailers) and emerging vertically coordinated supply chains (like Future Beef and Ranchers Renaissance) are gearing up to provide the consumer with a trail of documentation that includes animal welfare and food safety.

“We will eventually be required to, on our own or required by someone else, to trace back and trace forward our product,” said Smith.

Spun with a different loop, increasing demands by customers and consumers increases the need for the beef industry to adopt a voluntary but standardized individual animal identification system so that cattle can be tracked. Never mind the growing examples of economic leverage offered by individual animal management, just the process verification that identification enables is already helping some cow/calf producers put more jingle in their pockets.

As an example, Jordan Cattle Auction, one of eMerge Interactive's regional CattleinfoNet Interactive Facilities developed its Premium Cattle Auction model in 1999. In a nutshell, cattle are identified with electronic tags, go through a specific 45-day weaning and preconditioning program, then are brought to the sale barn where they are commingled and sorted into uniform load lots with no more than 75 lb. weight spread across the load. All of the calf health history follows the cattle to the new buyers who have been paying, on average, a slide-adjusted gross premium of around $100 per head for steers and heifers, compared to their non-backgrounded counterparts sold at the same and other auctions at the same time. That's a good bit of money compared to the $35-$40 cost of concentrate feed and vaccines such a program requires.

Bottom line, when the process can be verified buyers are willing to pay decent wages for the effort. And, they're willing to do so because preconditioned calves come with less health risk. In fact, a growing number of buyers today won't even bid on calves that haven't come through certified process verification programs. eMerge plans to unleash their model next at Blue Grass Stockyards in Lexington, KY, another CattleinfoNet Interactive Facility. That's on top of similar programs being served up by auction markets in other states via other systems. Heaven's, even animal pharmaceutical giant, Merial, has taken to offering SureHealth™ certification to producers using its products in a specified manner.

Besides economics, if folks start demanding that producers sign on the dotted line about what has and hasn't been done to an individual animal (and in some cases this requirement already exists) logic says a producer had better be able to track his animals so that no one can try to hang him with a problem he didn't create.

Ironically, when NCBA held its animal ID symposium last February, the most popular argument against an industry-wide ID system revolved around the fear of increased liability.

Herding Snakes

Actually, since customers are ultimately not going to make product traceability an option, the greater producer concern should revolve around how the industry is going to bring some standardization to an industry identification effort that is so far a mixture of all kinds of folks going their own way.

In addition to the private industry systems that exist, NCBA has an ID subcommittee that reports to the NCBA marketing committee which will presumably offer up some recommended standards at that organization's mid-year meeting in August; the National Institute for Animal Agriculture has long-standing involvement in the issue; USDA had mentioned prior to the changing of the guard that it might assemble some sort of advisory task force; certainly vendors of ID and the information systems needed to divvy up the data ought to be included.

Even as the industry tries to wrap its arms around how to harness current technology to give customers the animal welfare and food safety certification they are beginning to demand, folks like futurist, Lowell Catlett of New Mexico State University point out the verification train has left and is speeding faster and faster down the tracks.

Speaking at the recent International Animal Agriculture and Food Science Conference in Indianapolis, Catlett described a Tofu manufacturer in the Northwest who already, via bar codes on the packages, can tell not only the source of the soybeans, but the specific 10' X 10' plot where the soybeans came from that have been used in the manufacture of that particular package. “We've got to certify and we've got to get accountable in ways we never would have believed,” says Catlett.

Far-fetched as it may sound, Catlett says the world is on the threshold of combining global positioning, wireless protocol such as Blue Tooth (which allows any electronic gadget to speak with any other electronic gadget) and microscopic lasers to monitor and manage any living creature or plant around the clock. Besides untold potential to increase efficiency he says that means producers will be able to verify through a third party the job they are doing caring for their stock and land in building a safe product for consumers.

Whether or not that happens, or when, the point is that the jury which is the customer has spoken. If they are going to continue to buy beef they are going to want to know exactly where it came from, how it was grown and who is responsible.

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