Where should we set production standards?
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
I read an article this weekend highlighting that many North American meat companies are wrestling with how to deal with beef from Brazil. The fires in the Amazon are creating a high-profile issue. Many across the world want to influence Brazil to control the fires specifically and the loss of rainforest generally. They see an opportunity to vote with their dollars and put pressure on companies not to buy Brazilian beef – Brazil represents about 20% of the world’s trade in beef.
This blog is not related to the ongoing discussion on beef sustainability and the impact on climate change. This specific issue just highlighted for me the issue with standards in trade that originally arose for me in my work on animal welfare standards.
Many countries have a national code of practice relative to welfare standards. There are also food safety standards and others will likely evolve. These standards are developed to ensure that the food produced in that country meets certain minimum standards. These can be based on science and/or general perception of acceptability. We are increasingly seeing companies set standards for the product they buy. It is most common at the consumer interface – restaurants and, to a smaller degree, retailers have developed standards for food products. We are seeing processors do it too – making claims about how their products are produced and buying to those standards. Agricultural producers often complain about claims and standards further up the chain (what I call Codes of Purchase versus the traditional Codes of Practice), but for traded products these may be preferable to farm based standards of practice.
In the case of welfare standards, the question becomes: are we more interested as a nation in how the animals raised in Canada are treated or how the animals we consume are treated? This is an important distinction. In truth, we may well care about both.
In cases where we import meat, there is a risk that a code of practice may disadvantage local producers versus the imported product. In that case, meat on the shelves in retail or on the plate in food service may not meet the Canadian production standard and Canadian producers may lose opportunity. In this instance, everyone will be better off if the standard is set higher up the value chain.
Understanding the specifics of the market and the motivations for having standards becomes more important when establishing them. In some cases, producers may well be better off if the standard is set by processors, restaurants, or retailers than if they are at the farm. In the end, consumer preference will to a significant degree drive the establishment of standards. How we achieve that needs careful consideration.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Where should we set production standards?”. Food Focus Guelph (58), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, September 16th, 2019.