PRODUCERS are constantly told to 'tell their stories' as a pathway to building trust and engaging with consumers who are increasingly demanding to know where their food comes from and how it is produced.
But stories fall apart very quickly without underlying credentials, say those at the forefront of beef sustainability work.
In a world where food provenance and traceability are becoming more and more important, data will be a key driver of value and world-leading integrity systems in Australian livestock can not be underestimated.
That was the clear conclusion to be drawn from a forum looking at what integrity means for businesses across the beef supply chain held as part of Red Meat 2019, a three-day conference in Tamworth recently.
It featured producers, processors, exporters, lotfeeders and stock and unpacked what it means to the Australian industry to have robust integrity systems and on-farm practices that instill confidence with trading partners and consumers.
Lachlan Graham, from NSW's Argyle Foods Group, one of Australia's largest vertically integrated meat processing operations, said how you capture data and its integrity was key to a brand.
In essence, it's all the brand is worth, he said.
Argyle has a branded presence in more than 3000 retail outlets worldwide. It recently partnered with a strategic investor to develop the Chinese retail and food service markets as well as expand the vertical integration through to sales, marketing and distribution.
"We are now breeders, fatteners, traders, processors exporters and distributors and we've been working hard to take all the data we collect, integrate it and streamline it," he said.
"We want to put an overarching platform above it with blockchain security so we can say 'here's all our systems in one place and this product is end-to-end supply chain secured'."
That had been driven by Argyle's customers in China, Mr Graham said.
"It's a different market to consumers in Australia who have in inherent trust in what they are eating - up there people will pay for that data," he said.
"Given the increase in values of beef and lamb globally, it's more than justified to put some investment in this because going forward that's where our returns will come from."
Not just an empty story
Tess Herbert, who with husband Andrew runs Gundamain feedlot in NSW, said the three pillars of Australia's integrity systems - the National Livestock Identification System, national vendor declarations and Livestock Production Assurance - were embedded in their operation.
"That's not just for compliance purposes - they are management tools that add value every day," she said.
"Our feedlot software allows us to incorporate other data so we can get a full lifetime report on an animal and how it's performed and that drives our business and our decision making."
She believes LPA is the area which will help the industry most as it works to secure a social licence and trust with consumers.
The need for verified stories was increasing, she said.
"We run a risk as an industry that if it's just a story, its empty. Everything that is underneath needs to be unpacked," Mrs Herbert said.
She believes LPA needs to be 'beefed up'.
"There are a plethora of company specs that go beyond and we need to boost LPA up to those levels," she said.
That would involve cultural change.
"It will be difficult for some producers but we need to move towards a change in our thinking where quality assurance underpins every one of our businesses," Mrs Herbert said.
Others catching up
Bomber Lancaster, manager at the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer with Biosecurity Queensland, said Australia led the way when it brought in NLIS 20 years ago.
"But other countries are catching up now so we have to make better use of the data," he said.
Electronic NVDs would be a big step forward, he believes.
"That will be a powerful tool from a traceback point of view. It will mean we no longer have to wait for producers to answer the phone, instead we can verify movements and proceed to do what we need to, whether it's a food safety or disease incursion issue."
Elders northern livestock manager Paul Holm said stock agents could be the vital link to producers.
"We have 100,000 plus customers we can get to in a moment's notice," he said.
"You can train one livestock agent about an integrity system and that agent can take that message out in a trusted and positive fashion."
Exactly what we say
Group livestock manager for NH Foods Australia Steven Moy said integrity systems provided his business with a platform to increase revenue which could be delivered back to producers.
"We're seeing a lot of smart young people come into agriculture and integrity really excites them," he said.
"Australia's integrity systems are respected around the world. The provenance stories we can tell and the raising claims we make on products are accepted to be truthful.
"It means we can stand behind a pack and know it is exactly what we say it is."
Chief executive officer of Meat & Livestock Australia's Integrity Systems Company Jane Wetherley said Australia's integrity systems provided value to the tune of $7 for every dollar invested.
For the past five years, that has equated to $499m, she said.
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