It might be a little early to nominate the 2005 Beef Industry Words of the Year, but “documentation” and “verification” could be likely candidates.

Domestic retailers and foodservice companies increasingly want verification of any number of beef traits, from genetics to diet, health background and handling practices. Export customers want all of that and more, including age verification and traceability.

As the industry scrambles to adjust to the evolving and increasingly demanding market environment, some companies already have positioned themselves to provide customers with the assurances they want. Agri Beef Co., operating five large feedyards in the Northwest and one in Kansas, has prepared for this trend by becoming the first cattle-feeding company to secure ISO 9001 and HACCP certifications for its operations.

Jeff Johnson, who oversees Agri Beef’s cattle-feeding operations, says the idea for ISO and HACCP certification for the feedyards began in one of the company’s other divisions. The Performance High Plains supplement plant in Garden City, Kan., initially gained ISO and HACCP certification and attracted the attention of Agri Beef’s management team. “We took the feedyard managers to Garden City to look at the operation and explore how we might apply similar management systems to our feedyards,” Mr. Johnson says. “ISO and HACCP certification looked like a good mechanism for getting a better handle on our processes, so we decided to pursue certification for all six feedyards.”

The process is largely self-directed, Mr. Johnson explains. Agri Beef, rather than any outside party, determines the standards and practices for its feeding operations. ISO certification provides a means for the company to prove that it is doing the things it claims, through detailed documentation and annual third-party audits. In Agri Beef’s case, the auditing firm Deloitte and Touche independently verifies that feedyard procedures and controls conform to established standards. HACCP certification also is achieved and verified by a third-party auditor. Agri Beef also conducts its own quarterly audits to assure that employees are following specified protocols.

Details, details
Custom cattle feeding is the core of Agri Beef’s business, Mr. Johnson says, and the primary goal in setting management strategies is to improve the consistency of cattle performance. In preparation for ISO/HACCP certification, Mr. Johnson says each feedyard developed flow charts documenting all internal processes, then identified and implemented controls to assure each process is conducted according to set standards. “The program is completely adaptable. We can add new procedures and write them into the ISO documentation.”

Employees are responsible for documenting how to improve processes where problems are identified. “This is not like a suggestion box where no one responds to the suggestions,” Mr. Johnson says. There is a process for formal response and feedback from management. The concept extends into management and staff meetings, which require a written agenda, specific goals and follow-up on action items.

One example of an opportunity the company’s management identified through the ISO process related to inconsistencies or miscommunication in cattle procurement. Agri Beef manages cattle procurement for all six feedyards from the corporate office in Boise, Idaho. The feedyards sometimes would receive cattle that were not what they expected, or did not meet customer specifications for type, weight or background, he says. The company began using a formal process for evaluating all incoming cattle shipments at the feedyards and providing regular feedback to procurement managers at the corporate office. This objective process has paid big dividends by improving the company’s ability to assure that incoming cattle conform to expectations, Mr. Johnson says.

Training tool
Perhaps the most important aspect, Mr. Johnson says, is that the company has developed a formalized process for employee training, including ongoing evaluation and feedback. Employees know from the start what their responsibilities are and what management expects from them, and managers have noted significant improvements in efficiency and safety.

Dusty Turner manages Agri Beef’s Kansas feedyard, Supreme Feeders, a 70,000-head operation near Liberal. He agrees that ISO works as a great training tool. “We have identified and documented standard operating procedures and best management practices and developed safety checklists for every operation in the feedyard.” New employees know exactly what management expects of them and they get up to speed quickly. “We have enhanced the safety culture within the operation,” he adds. Currently, there are three Agri Beef Co. facilities that have gone longer than one year without a lost-time accident.

In addition to safety training, Mr. Turner says ISO compliance has improved safety by giving managers and crews better control over all of the processes in the feedyard. Better organization helps avoid the emergencies that can lead to accidents.

The management team needs to fully support the ISO process, but Mr. Johnson stresses that a key to success is that the program needs to be driven by employees. They are the ones implementing the day-to-day processes and need to buy into the concept. Most employees, he says, have accepted the transition and feel they are part of a process that will improve the company. “Employees generally are excited to be part of something new. We had some concern initially that we might be asking too much of employees, but they have adapted well. It’s a great motivational tool.”

Customer focus
Mr. Johnson stresses that the ISO process is completely customer-focused. “We conduct key account interviews with customers to document any problems or concerns they might have, then identify how to take action. We now have documented procedures for receiving commodities and standardized methods for dealing with feed ingredients that do not meet specifications.”

Jay Theiler serves as brand development manager for Washington Beef, Agri Beef’s packing division. He points out that Agri Beef began working toward ISO and HACCP certification to improve operational strengths in the feedyards, before the company got into the packing business with the acquisition of Washington Beef. Now that the company is working with foodservice, retailers and branded-beef products, additional benefits have become evident as ISO and HACCP strengthen the company’s comprehensive quality-control and food-safety efforts.

Mr. Theiler says ISO certification in the feedyards is a great marketing tool for the packing company. Retail customers and consumers want to know that controls are in place to assure the quality and safety of their food, he says. The company can approach customers with documentation showing that the feedyards and the packer use the best practices and enforce the highest standards to assure quality and safety.

Washington Beef sells to a number of regional retailers, some of which use the company’s branded product lines and others that specify particular types of products to sell under their own brand names. “They aren’t interested in all the specifics on how the cattle are raised,” Mr. Theiler says, “but they like to know that we can document all of our production practices. About two-thirds of Washington Beef’s production comes from Agri Beef’s feedyards, and the company works closely with other suppliers to
assure beef quality and safety.

The transition was not easy, Mr. Turner says. “It took a full year for managers and employees to get their minds around what ISO is about.” It could not, however, come at a better time. “Two years ago,” he points out, “we didn’t know we would have a case of BSE in the United States.” The system of documentation developed to gain ISO certification put the company in a good position to meet new requirements for process verification in domestic or export markets. “We now have written processes for daily monitoring of feed ingredients, equipment maintenance, trucking, inventory, pharmaceutical use and other activities within the feedyard.” This system of documentation, he says, will help Agri Beef achieve full compliance with the Beef Export Verification program. “We could be one of the first cattle-feeding companies eligible for exports under the new regulations.”

It is natural that a lot of managers would say, “We already do these things,” and they might be doing many of them, at least some of the time, Mr. Johnson says. The key step is to write everything down. Documentation and continuous evaluation encourage everyone to follow specified procedures every time. It changes the management style from reactive to proactive.