For nearly 20 years, the beef industry has pursued a goal of becoming more consumer-oriented. And while we’ve seen great progress in many facets of beef quality and value, resistance to consumer preferences occasionally surfaces when their demands appear to threaten the status quo.

To some extent, this seems to be the case with the trend toward animal-welfare standards, and particularly those certified to the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program, the signature initiative of Global Animal Partnership, or GAP. Earlier this week, in Part 1 of this series, we outlined the GAP program and some of the reasons it raises red flags for some producers and stakeholders.

Part 2 features discussions with GAP participants, documenting a process of cooperation and collaboration across the food system, involving people and groups with diverse backgrounds, toward consumer-based outcomes.

Responding to demand

IMI Global, a company long involved in beef source and process verification programs through their USDA Process Verified system, became an approved third-party GAP certifier early this year.

IMI president Leann Saunders says some in the industry question the motives of the GAP system, or of Whole Foods Market, which requires GAP certification for the meat they purchase. But the fact is, Whole Foods excels at knowing their customers and marketing to their preferences. Consumers who shop at the Whole Foods meat case have long paid premium prices for meat produced in verified “natural” systems, and now they want more, in the form of animal-welfare assurances. If producers and the industry want to supply that market, they need to respond and find ways to address consumer demand. “We’re trying to be proactive and provide transparency,” Saunders says.

IMI’s participation in the system was a natural fit, Saunders says, as the company already was involved in verifying brand claims, including those for natural-beef programs and programs that incorporate animal-care guidelines. Also, some producers or groups marketing through these systems already used IMI’s verification services, and wanted to continue with one, rather than multiple suppliers.

Saunders stresses that IMI or other third-party certifiers do not set the standards – GAP does – while IMI helps suppliers verify they meet the requirements. She also notes that consumers ultimately drive the requirements.

Common goals

While GAP’s executive director Miyun Park attracts considerable scrutiny for her past involvement with animal-rights groups, she is focused on a multi-stakeholder approach and recognizes the value of constructive engagement.

Over her years of involvement with animal-welfare issues, she has had the opportunity to hear from all sides and has become, she says, more open-minded toward animal agriculture. The GAP program involves stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and points of view – scientists, producers, retailers, consumers and yes, animal-welfare organizations. But when you engage these people in serious discussions she says, they agree on common goals of improving animal welfare and reducing suffering. “No one sector has the whole answer,” she says. “We’re not all going to agree on everything, but it is more effective to work together.”

In developing the original standards for beef, pork and chicken, GAP worked with a council of representatives of multiple sectors, with the board of directors reaching final consensus and approval of the standards for each of the Steps. While drafting its newest set of standards, for Turkey production, GAP introduced a public-comment period. The organization has begun a revision process for the original beef, pork and chicken standards, and plans to include a public-comment period prior to final adoption.

The 5-Step welfare certification program, Park says, offers options for retailers and for producers, and engages a much broader spectrum of industry rather than only a minority segment of producers. In a program with a single set of standards, a producer who barely qualifies has the same rating as one who exceeds the standards, whereas GAP’s multi-tiered program allows for more accurate labeling of each producer’s own practices. The 5-Step program does not require producers to advance in the system. They can come in at Step 1 and stay at Step 1 if they choose. For the retailer, the Step system allows more clear communication of standards to consumers, letting them know the exact rating, from Step 1 to Step 5+, that the producer achieved for the meat they buy.  Read more about the 5-Step standards.

Park says beef producers overall maintain a good record for animal welfare. From her work with consumers, two areas of concern tend to stand out. One is hot-iron branding. The other relates to comfort issues for feedyard cattle. People see images of feedyards, with lack of shade and perceived crowding, and can come away with negative perceptions. She acknowledges that lack of understanding, rather than actual animal suffering, can contribute to these perceptions in some cases. It is important to note that feedyard-finished cattle can qualify for certification to GAP’s 5-Step program.

Through her engagement and interaction with producers, Park has concluded that “big” does not automatically mean “bad,” nor does “small” always equal “good.” She has, she says, seen examples of excellent animal care at some very large operations, and a few poor examples at smaller ones.

Taking the steps

Silver Spur Ranches, one of the country’s largest cow-calf producers with operations in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, certifies its calves for the GAP program. Cheramie Viator, marketing manager for Silver Spur, sees the relationship as positive. GAP provides us an opportunity to interact with customers in a way that helps them understand our production practices,” she says. “We have a chance to tell our story and correct some misinformation or misperceptions.”

Through the process, she says, Silver Spur has invited representatives of Whole Foods and other entities to visit their ranches and see their management practices first hand. “Instead of being defensive, we’ve opened our doors.” The visitors left, she adds, with a positive view of animal agriculture.

IMI, she adds, has had a very positive effect in building relationships between Gap and producers in its role as a third-party auditor.

As for natural-foods retailers, consumers or even animal-welfare groups who might be skeptical of beef production, Viator thinks like an effective marketer, preferring to approach of them as customers, rather than enemies.

Silver Spur raises seedstock and commercial calves, retains ownership of most calves through growing and finishing at GAP-certified feedyards, and now at the company’s own feedyard in Nebraska. So, Viator says, they have experience with meeting GAP standards at all production stages. “We really haven’t had to change our production practices at all,” she says.

Jay Johnson, Phd., of C&R Land & Cattle, Happy, Texas, agrees, saying many producers “already do 90 percent” of the practices required for Step 1 certification to the 5-Step program. “It’s not that big of a change.” Johnson has met with GAP representatives, studied the requirements and served as an unofficial producer advisor to the program.

Johnson hopes to certify cattle to the GAP standards, but has not yet done so. He primarily raises stocker in a natural production system, aiming to qualify them for the Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) program for export to Europe. While he can source light stocker cattle with the verifications to qualify for natural programs and NHTC, supplies of calves audited for 5-Step certification are thin, he says. However, Johnson says his family recently added a cow herd to the operation, and he intends to certify their first calf crop to the GAP welfare program. He sees it as a way to expand his options for marketing. He can sell the calves as natural, NHTC and/or 5-Step certified, based on the best market premiums available at sale time.

Whole Foods’ adoption of the GAP standards is a form of “social marketing based on consumer preferences,” Johnson says. “It is value added, not in the cooler, but on the farm.”

It is understandable that farmers and ranchers are sensitive to this issue. They have a long and proud tradition of animal care, land stewardship and ethical business practices. When they perceive that outsiders with little experience or understanding of agriculture want to dictate how they run their operations, defensive shields come up.  But sometimes collaboration achieves more than combativeness.  “We have an opportunity to engage and have some influence in setting the standards,” Saunders says. “We can be part of the solution or we can bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.”