ATB - The Feed,  October 2015

Where’s the beef?  BIXS is connecting the dots from producer to consumer

When a little kid digs into a Happy Meal in Prince George B.C. or Corner Brook Newfoundland—or anywhere in between—she probably doesn’t care where the beef in the burger came from. But her parents do. And so does McDonalds.

McDonalds, the giant global fast food chain and largest buyer of Canadian beef, is using the Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS), in a one-year pilot project that improves communication and tracks chain of custody in Canada’s beef supply chain. BIXS is administered by BIXSco Inc, a limited company with two shareholders - the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and ViewTrak Technologies Inc. This is part of an ongoing industry initiative to brand Canadian beef for domestic and international markets.

The voluntary system means McDonalds—and other restaurants and retailers—can know where and how their beef was raised. “Major food retailers want to be able to verify that they know the sources of the products that they put on the shelves,” explains Deborah Wilson Senior Vice President, BIXSco Inc. “It’s being driven by consumer demand.”

People are concerned about ‘ethical eating,’ she says. “When I make my food choices as to what to eat, is it good for the environment? Is it sustainable? Have the animals been treated well?”  Having a robust information system (like France, UK and Australia), means a restaurant or retailer can answer those questions.

And, providing more information about the meat they’re selling gives them a competitive advantage. People are willing to pay more if they know the story behind the products they’re buying—the producer’s values, pride and protocols. “We’re not communicating with the target audience that are the biggest purchaser of our product, women 30 to 45 who are  buying food for their families,” says Wilson.

She points to misleading marketing campaigns where some restaurants or retailers make claims that twist the facts, or just make them up.  For example, claiming meat has no hormones: “Everything in the environment that grows has hormones in it. The hormones that are in a steak are less what’s in a head of cabbage,” says Wilson.

“We hear these things and it’s so frustrating,” she says. “Producers don’t know how to counteract this so the simple thing to do is to go back and do what you’ve always done and that is go back and take care of your cattle.”

By tracking chain of custody and management protocols through the beef supply chain, BIXS is “an excellent tool” to provide the information needed to talk to consumers about the industry.  “The good retailers out there are looking for ways to verify their claims.”  

BIXS is improving the beef industry in other ways too. Tracking and sharing information about animal production, performance, health, genetic/genomic and carcass data is helping drive more efficiency on the ranch and at the feedlot and processing plant.

The system shares available information that’s linked to an animal’s electronic ID tag number—the CCIA (Canadian Cattle Identification Agency) tag or RFID (radio frequency identification) tag.  “If at any point you have owned an animal with an ID tag on it, no matter what stage of its life, you are able to access whatever information there is in the system about that animal,” says Wilson.  You can get information about a specific animal by entering its tag number.  But the information about individual owners and other participants in the supply chain remain confidential, unless they agree to share the information.

The one year McDonald’s VSB pilot project ends in the spring of 2016.  All the information from that project will be turned over to the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef with the hope that the industry will continue down the sustainability road, and utilize the information exchange system that helps talk to consumers where their food comes from.

 “We are actively reaching out to the public and we’re actively promoting our industry,” says Wilson, “and we’re actively trying to tell the good story.”