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How a beef plant is setting a new standard in food safety

A beef processing plant which opened this year just north of Calgary is setting new industry standards for food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship.

This week, we’re exploring the food safety innovations introduced at Harmony Beef, which opened in Balzac, AB., in February 2017.

Hazard analysis and critical control points

The management team at Harmony Beef is committed to meeting or exceeding the stringent requirements of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Food Safety Enhancement Program.

One of the cornerstones of the program is HACCP System (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), a systematic approach to food safety that helps prevent, find and correct hazards throughout the production process.

At Harmony:

    • The plant and production protocols have been designed to meet European standards, which exceed those in North America.
    • Temperature control and air flow systems in the building were designed to control any potential microbial growth and prevent contamination.
    • Critical control points, where inspections and interventions take place, include everything from slaughter to packaging.
    • Supervisory and food safety personnel have the authority to enforce compliance with food safety systems on anyone entering and/or working in the facility.
    • All water used in the plant is treated, and the outflow exceeds Canadian drinking water standards.

Opening up a world of opportunity

Because the new plant demonstrably complies with European food safety standards, it provides the opportunity to increase our trade with EU countries.

International trade is crucial to the growth and sustainability of the beef industry, and to the contribution it makes to the Canadian economy. But, as you can learn in the blog post, Canadian beef in demand: feeding the European market and why it matters, Canada does not meet its tariff-free quota for beef exports to Europe. In the post, feedlot operator Jason Hagel says processing plants in Alberta tend to focus on the U.S. market, leaving the European market under-served.

You can read about another international trade issue concerning Canada’s beef producers in Canadian beef trade with China takes a serious blow.

In upcoming weeks, we will explore the high standards of animal care, including low-stress handling, and the environmental innovations introduced at the Harmony plant.

4 things you should know about beef production and the environment

Canadians care about the environment, and want the facts. When it comes to the beef industry, it’s easy to find information about the environmental impacts of beef production, such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the digestive processes of cows. But it can be hard for Canadians to find balanced information – to learn, for instance, that beef production can also be good for the environment in a variety of ways.

Here are four ways beef production benefits the environment:

  1. Much of the land used for grazing cattle is unsuitable for crop production – for instance because it is too hilly, too stony, too boggy or too dry.
  2. Grasslands help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and support biodiversity.
  3. Much of the grain used by feedlots is not of a high enough quality for human consumption.
  4. Feedlots are able to use otherwise wasted by-products, such as waste from grain ethanol plants.

To help explain the environmental impact of the Canadian beef industry, Beef Advocacy Canada produced the following video which shows how beef production can actually be good for the environment:

As you can see, protecting the environment is a top priority for Canada’s beef producers. But there’s always more that can be done.

Striving for improvement

To find out how the beef industry is working to improve its environmental impacts, we spoke with Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Council. Reynold explained that the development and adoption of new production technologies, more efficient feeds and improved animal care has benefited people, cattle and the environment.

“Raising a kilogram of Canadian beef today generates 15 per cent less greenhouse gas than 30 years ago,” said Reynold. “We can also produce as much beef as we did 30 years ago using 29 per cent fewer cattle, and using 24 per cent less land.”

Check out the ways our members make environmental stewardship a priority in ‘How Alberta’s cattle feeders are helping protect the environment’, ‘Taking the heat off meat: the truth about GHG emissions’ and ‘The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?’

Meet the international trade expert who is helping support the Canadian beef industry abroad

John Weekes, an independent business advisor who has worked with the National Cattle Feeders’ Association (NCFA) on trade issues, is the subject of this week’s Meet the Team series profile.

John is an expert in international trade policy and a senior business advisor at Bennett Jones in Ottawa. He has been a huge asset to NCFA in developing a strategic approach to negotiating with government and stakeholders.

Supporting Canadian cattle feeders in Ottawa

During his career, John has been chief negotiator for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), chair of the WTO General Council, and ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) during the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations. His insider’s perspective on governments’ approach to trade matters has been invaluable to NCFA.

Trade files he has worked on include:

Country-of-Origin Labelling (COOL)

In 2002, the U.S. introduced a regulation requiring all beef (and some other agriculture products) to have a label stating where it was from. To be labeled as U.S.-sourced, the animal had to be born, raised and processed in that country. Processing plants in the U.S. were required to keep Canadian born and raised animals separate from those born and raised in the U.S., a requirement that was costly to adhere to. As a result, Canadian exports to the U.S. suffered, and some U.S. plants were forced to close. Many jobs were lost on both sides of the border, and COOL cost the Canadian beef industry billions of dollars. 

Canada appealed to the WTO in 2008 and, in December 2015, won. The U.S. Congress repealed COOL to avoid $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs authorized in the WTO ruling. 

As Canada’s former ambassador to the WTO, John was uniquely positioned to provide advice through the complex web of WTO tribunals and the excruciatingly long appeals process. John worked with NCFA and others on this, including advising federal government officials. His contacts within the U.S. were also helpful in getting NCFA’s messages through in Washington, and he helped us communicate with Canadian importers who might have been harmed if Canada retaliated against U.S. imports into Canada.

Canada-E.U. Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)

This free trade deal between Canada and the EU came into effect on September 21, 2017. It will allow Canada to ship 65,000 metric tonnes of beef into the EU, without duty or tariffs. This could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Canada’s beef industry. John did a great job monitoring developments, needs and the political climate within the EU, and is continuing to contribute while the details are being finalized.   

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) 

Canada was not part of the group that began this trade negotiation, but NCFA urged the Canadian government to become part of the TPP process, which it did. John offered advice on what Canada should secure in this negotiation. Now that the U.S. has chosen not to ratify the deal, John will lend his expertise to a new round of negotiations with other TPP partners, if talks go ahead.

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 

As Canada’s former Chief Negotiator for NAFTA, John has an unrivaled understanding of the ins and outs of the agreement, and his opinions are sought by industry and government during the current and ongoing negotiations with NAFTA.

Why international trade matters

Canadian beef is renowned worldwide for its great taste and high quality. A healthy export industry contributes to a healthy Canadian economy. Expertise such as John’s is vital to NCFA in securing the conditions our beef producers need to develop profitable relationships with customers across the globe.

You can read more about international trade issues in ‘Canadian beef trade with China takes a serious blow’, ‘Cattle feeders head to Ottawa to support NAFTA negotiations’, ‘Feeding the world: why the agri-food industry must be an economic priority’ and ‘How people in 58 countries enjoy Canadian beef’.

Canadian beef trade with China takes a serious blow

Recent trade developments between China and the U.S. have some Canadian beef producers seriously worried.

Their concern stems from the disparity between the types of product China will now accept from the U.S. and those accepted from Canada:

    • Currently, Canadian producers are only allowed to ship boneless, Under Thirty Months (UTM) frozen beef and only from individual processing plants that have been audited and approved by Chinese officials and certified for export to China by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
    • China’s trade deal with the U.S. allows American producers to ship boneless beef, bone-in beef, chilled beef, and certain offals from any federally-inspected and approved processor.

Canadian beef producers already suffering the impacts

Producers and industry associations have written letters to Agriculture Minister MacAulay, as well as trade officials, to inform them of the impacts this has on the Canadian beef market. Producers are trading directly into China and have met all the requirements necessary for sale of beef into China – and this is a tremendous opportunity that may fail without similar access to that achieved by the U.S.

Some Canadian producers are selling their product under the branded ‘Farm Gate to Chinese Plate’ program, and have a custom processing contract with a large processing plant here in Alberta. These producers have invested substantial time and capital over the past four years to build a strong relationship with their Chinese partners. In 2016, 10,000 head of Canadian cattle were exported to China. Producers were looking forward to increasing that to 15,000 head in 2017, but their Chinese customers have informed them they may change the order, and want it for a lower price.

Canadian producers are selling product into China for high-end retail and restaurants, but they can only ship frozen, boneless product. The fact that the U.S. is now allowed to ship fresh or chilled bone-in beef puts Canadian producers at a distinct disadvantage in this marketplace. This may end trade with the Chinese for Canadian beef producers as a result.

Canadian trade with China

To date, China has expanded its acceptance of Canadian product in stages, where additional product lines are allowed access over time. For instance, China agreed to accept Canadian bone-in beef back in September 2016, but the agreement has not yet been finalized, so currently, no bone-in product is being shipped. However, the recent agreement with the U.S. shows that China can work on opening many beef product lines at the same time. The hope is that Canadian negotiators can secure the same treatment for Canada.

Canadian beef producers have expressed concerns over the fact that their industry depends on global trade – they need to be competitive for the growth and sustainability of their industry. China is a market where producers need the Canadian government to step up its efforts to gain access similar to that achieved by the U.S.

Learn more about Canada’s beef trade with China from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Cattle feeders head to Ottawa to support NAFTA negotiations

Canada’s beef producers are anxious to preserve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because it is a great example of how free trade should work. U.S. President Donald Trump, however, has threatened to pull his country out of the pact.

What NAFTA has meant to the Canadian beef industry

NAFTA’s tri-lateral market access — without tariffs or quotas for either beef or live cattle — has resulted in healthy trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

According to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, in 2016, Canada exported 270,000 tonnes of beef and 764,000 head of live cattle to the U.S., valued at more than $3 billion ($1.7 billion was beef and $1.4 billion live cattle). A further 16,000 tonnes of Canadian beef valued at $109 million went to Mexico, making that country Canada’s fourth largest beef export market.

In fact, almost 72 per cent of Canada’s beef exports go to the U.S., and six per cent to Mexico. Almost 59 per cent of our beef imports come from the U.S.

Beef industry submission to federal governments supports NAFTA

In May 2017, the National Cattle Feeders Association (NCFA) joined with other Canadian beef industry groups in a submission to the governments of Canada, U.S. and Mexico, stressing that NAFTA works well for beef and the relevant provisions should not be changed. The arrangement has produced an integrated North American beef industry that benefits the three countries, and has allowed Canada to build an industry that is also more competitive internationally.   

While the NAFTA talks could lead to a fine-tuning of some details – such as the elimination or reform of certain border regulations and export impediments, and the aligning and harmonizing of veterinary drug approvals – we believe it’s important for Canada’s beef producers, and the Canadian economy, to preserve this agreement.

How Canada’s beef industry is represented at the negotiation table

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has a trade division that provides advice to the chief NAFTA negotiator. The trade team has received input and advice from industry representatives, and has held briefings for industry stakeholders prior to each round of the NAFTA talks. NCFA is planning to be at the upcoming briefings for the second round that will be held in Ottawa on September 23-27. 

How Canada’s beef industry could be negatively impacted by changes to NAFTA

Any changes that would restrict the free flow of live cattle and boxed beef across the borders to the U.S. and Mexico could have a profound effect on Canada’s beef producers. Another concern is any reimplementation of Country of Origin Labelling (COOL), which has been historically damaging to the beef industry.

You can read the full submission to the governments of Canada, U.S. and Mexico  here.

Antimicrobials on the feedlot: Why animal care should matter to consumers

There’s a great deal of confusion and misinformation out there about the use of antimicrobials – of which antibiotics are just one type — in food animals.

In a recent blog series we explored why antimicrobials are used, what the concerns are, and what safeguards are in place. This week we met with John Schooten of Schooten and Sons Custom Feedyards to get the perspective from someone on the ground. We asked John to tell us how, when and why cattle feeders use antimicrobials in their operations.

John explained that their top priority is maintaining the best health and welfare for their cattle. “We use a combination of appropriate disease prevention and control measures, and prompt treatment of illness, injury and disease,” he said.

John Schooten and Sons Custom Feedlots

Herd Health Management

Every feedlot has a strategy for disease prevention, rapid diagnosis and effective treatment of illness in their cattle. This would typically include daily monitoring, and maintenance of accurate animal management and health records.

Because cattle are kept together in pens in feedlots, they can be at an increased risk for the transmission of disease. When you add in stressors, such as weaning and transportation, co-mingling at auction markets and weather issues, that adds to the risk.

“Antimicrobials are then sometimes necessary for medical or preventative purposes,” said John. “For example, Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is a leading cause of sickness and mortality in the beef feedlot industry. Early treatment decreases the likelihood of cattle dying or suffering long-term symptoms, and using antibiotics, when appropriate, is the humane thing to do.

Veterinary Supervision

All feedlots work closely with their veterinarian when it comes to disease prevention and herd health. “A licensed, practicing veterinarian will have the responsibility for making clinical judgments regarding the health of the cattle and the need for medical treatment,” explained John.

Food Safety

Feedlot operators must adhere to strict standards of quality assurance, and their compliance is monitored. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations specify withdrawal times that must have elapsed from the last dose of antibiotics (and other drug products such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or vaccines) before the animal can be sent for processing. This ensures that all beef is antibiotic free.

“Feedlots use antimicrobials prudently to ensure the animals’ health and welfare,” continued John. “Feedlots’ concerns about antimicrobial resistance are actively addressed through very limited use of Category One drugs, ongoing research, regulatory requirements, veterinary oversight and antimicrobial stewardship practices.”

Should we be raising cattle without the use of antimicrobials?

“Without the use of antimicrobials, the outcome for animal welfare is very negative,” said John. “Animals get sick, suffer and die.”

Our producers are committed to providing safe, wholesome beef to consumers around the world, and raising healthy cattle is an important part of that process.

There is more information about the use of antimicrobials in food animals in the earlier posts in this series:

Infographic: How does Alberta produce world-class beef?

Canadian beef – and Alberta’s in particular – is internationally recognized for its quality and taste. But what are the key difference makers in Alberta beef production? What sets our province apart?

Take a look at our infographic below to gain a better understanding of how Alberta’s cattle feeders produce world-class beef. For more information, check out our overview of beef production in Alberta.

Beef production in Alberta:

Beef production

How technology helped reduce the impact of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak

A disease outbreak is one of the most tragic things that can happen in any industry that relies on crops or livestock. In September 2016, the Canadian beef industry was faced with an outbreak of Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) – a disease that had the potential to devastate our cattle producers’ operations.

Fortunately, in this case, the outbreak was brought under control, and its impact minimized, using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Read on to find out how.

What happens when disease is discovered

When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that a case of bovine TB had been detected in a cow from Alberta, the first step was to identify the farm of origin. This was quickly achieved through a combination of RFID tags, brand identification tattoos, metal tags and farm tags.

The next step was an investigation so that control measures could be put in place to help prevent the spread of the disease. According to the CFIA, the investigation’s first stage involved identifying all the animals from that farm, and any that had encountered them.

Phase two of the investigation required tracing all animals that had left the infected farm in the last five years, and also tracing any animals that they had come into contact with.

During the third phase, CFIA identified the herds from which animals had been introduced into the infected herd in the past five years. The goal here was to identify the source of the infection, but the reality is that it cannot always be positively confirmed.

Once the infected animals had been identified, and farms they’d been on were traced, any adult cattle that could have come into contact with the infected animals were quarantined and tested to verify whether the disease had spread to other farms.

By the time the outbreak was contained, approximately 11,500 head of cattle had been humanely destroyed, and 14,000 were quarantined and subsequently released.

The role of traceability

Being able to trace the movement of cattle that may have been exposed to the infected herd was fundamental to the CFIA’s ability to prevent the spread and impact of the disease.

According to CFIA, animal traceability contributes to be an effective disease response and reduces the impact of a disease outbreak on individual producers and the industry as a whole. Good tracing information supports a faster response and can help limit the number of farms that must be quarantined.

The outcome of the outbreak

The TB outbreak was finally contained, but not before the beef industry experienced a significant impact. Nonetheless, without the benefits of RFID technology, the outcome would have been even worse. It’s worth noting that Canada’s world-leading cattle traceability system is made possible due to the diligence of industry members, who play a critical role in ensuring this information is collected and maintained. If this information had been incomplete or unavailable, the length of the investigation and the ability to determine the source of the infection would have been impacted significantly.

You can read more about RFID technology in these posts:

Quiz: how has cattle feeding contributed to 150 years of Canadian prosperity?

2017 is a momentous year for Canadians, as we celebrate our nation’s 150th birthday. But did you know that the Canadian beef industry has been around for about that long too?

As we move toward Canada 150, we thought we’d have a little fun with a look at how the cattle feeding industry has contributed to Canada over the last century and a half. Take this quiz to find out how well you know your feedlot history:

Canada’s come a long way in 150 years – and so has the beef industry! You can learn more about the history of Alberta’s feedlots in ‘From Start to Finish: An Illustrated History of Cattle Feeding in Alberta’ (PDF).

 

If you enjoyed this quiz, you might also enjoy this earlier one from our blog: ‘How well do you know your beef?’

Food safety, antibiotics and Canadian beef – can the 3 go together?

This is the final part of our three-part series on the use of antibiotics (or more accurately, antimicrobials), in food animals.

To conclude this series, we’re looking at the measures in place to ensure food safety when antibiotics are given to food animals. We continue our conversation with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd.

Animal protein is important in maintaining human health and combatting global food shortages,” said Sherry. “But at the same time, animal welfare needs to be supported and we don’t want animals to suffer because we are afraid to use antimicrobials to treat them, or because regulation will not allow the use of antimicrobials in animals.”

Food safety practices

Farmers play an important role in producing safe, healthy food, while protecting public health. But the care and welfare of their animals is an equally important priority for them. That requires a balance of sound science and responsible practices.

“Stringent food safety practices can help us ensure that the use of antimicrobials is safe for humans while allowing the best in animal care. The food safety practices for controlling bacteria during slaughter and processing are excellent, regulated and effective,” Sherry stated.

She stressed that, for the consumer, proper cooking of all food is the best way to protect against bacteria that has become resistant to antimicrobials.

Regulation of antimicrobials in Canada

Antimicrobials are subjected to a series of rigorous tests, clinical trials and field studies before they can be approved for use in animals or people. And even after a product is approved, testing and monitoring continues.

“Government, public health, veterinary, and livestock agricultural industry sectors have all been working to improve antimicrobial use protocols, monitoring, and transparency,” said Sherry.

“Soon, loopholes will be closed which allow antimicrobials to enter Canada without monitoring (‘own-use importation’ and the import of active pharmaceutical ingredients). The practice of buying antimicrobials at a farm store for use in animals will also no longer be allowed.”

The use of antimicrobials in animals strictly for growth promotion is another practice that’s on its way out. Regulations are soon to be introduced ensuring that the treatment must be required for health reasons.

To treat or not to treat?

In the balance, the benefits to animal welfare and food safety far outweigh the concerns surrounding the use of antimicrobials (including antibiotics) in beef cattle. There are valid concerns though, and they are being taken seriously. Changing regulations and practices will continue to address the issues around their use.

To learn about another food safety issue, check out  ‘Beef and hormones: what the science says’.