The More Maine Meat Chain of Custody Project started as an effort to research and develop a manual to describe how a meat traceability program could operate in Maine. The need for this type of program was prompted by perceived Maine consumer demand for local food products and the existence of labeling standards that some believed could be misleading to consumers. The project evolved into development of a manual for a certification program for Maine animals (red meat) that would enable producers to make local source claims supported by an independent third-party verification process.
Our project relied heavily on leadership from a group of producers in defining the details of how a program should operate. The process involved researching nine existing verification programs offered through government, private and nonprofit organizations and developing a draft program manual that outlines organizational and governance structures, logistics and requirements for participating animals, farms and processors, and the responsibilities of a third-party certifier.
The manual was vetted through an advisory committee and in total input was solicited from 20 farmers and experts in state government, from Cooperative Extension and other organizations. The manual requires further refinements from the organization that would be responsible for certifying animals in order to streamline program logistics and manage costs. While not directly related to this project, legislation was passed in Maine in 2019 that strengthens labeling requirements for meat products. The legislation requires that meat labeled as “Maine” be born, raised and processed in state. Individuals working on the manual were able to provide input during the legislative process. If implemented, a separate certification program would create a means for businesses to demonstrate compliance with the law and for retailers and others selling meat products to be confident in the authenticity of Maine branded meat products.
The primary objective of this project is to develop the framework for a volunteer program that uses Radio Frequency Data Identification (RFID) or other technology and cross sector partnerships to certify Maine born, raised and processed meats and promotes the added value of those products in the marketplace.
Additionally, the project seeks to:
– Build a cross sector network of farmers and food business across the supply chain who can define core components of a meat traceability program
– Strengthen relationships and information-sharing across the supply chain
– Increase awareness of traceability technology options and applications for small and mid-sized farms
– Build the foundation for implementing a certification program for Maine born, raised and processed meats program and companion marketing and promotion campaign
– Understand requirements for developing a state and federally-approved logo that can be added to the labels of farms and processors participating in the program
– Develop a program that will help build consumer awareness of the value of traceability in verifying born, grown and processed Maine meats and in ensuring the quality of meat products.
– Develop a program that will assure consumers they are receiving the value of a local brand so their efforts to support our Maine Red Meat industries are in fact doing just that.
The More Maine Meat Chain of Custody program will build on the work of other tracking and chain of custody programs including:
- Circle Fresh Farms. As referenced earlier, the recipient of a 2012 Western SARE grant, CFF developed and tested a “product track and trace system” for smaller producers. Their “Track and Trace Implementation Handbook” provides information on 28 preferable system attributes that were used to compare vendors that provide tracking software; many of these would also be relevant for small meat producers and processors developing similar traceability systems.
- The “Certified Beef from Nebraska Program.” Unveiled in 2017, this program provides an example of a public-private partnership that works with the USDA Process Verified Program to create a brand for Nebraska born, grown and raised meats.
- The “Wyoming Natural Verified” program. Developed by the Wyoming Business Council, this program works with a third-party auditor and serves as a “marketing tool to enhance profitability and (allow) producers to capture added value through premiums being offered for certified livestock.”
- Research on Modeling and Implementation of Supply Chain Traceability using a distributed RFID-Based Framework. An article published by PLOS ONE in 2015 details the findings of a Chinese research project that looked at the development, testing and evaluation of a traceability process for the beef / cattle industry for the purposes of guaranteeing quality and safety of food products and improving supply chain transparency. The research identified “critical traceability points” in the beef supply chain such as transferring a calf for fattening; slaughtering; and, carcass splitting. It also visually lays out an RFID information technology network architecture that would operate within individual segments of the supply chain (e.g. Farm, Processing Business, Distribution Business) and linked together as a collective traceability system.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The Forest Stewardship Council led the development of an industry chain of custody program to encourage and promote sustainable harvesting of forest products. The Council’s “FSC Family Forests Group Operation Manual Template” outlines topic areas relevant to other groups developing chain of custody programs including how roles and responsibilities are defined; how “sustainability” is defined; what voluntary “membership” entails and how the chain of custody process is implemented.
- Marine Stewardship Council (MFC). Similar to the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council has created a traceability process for fish harvested from “sustainable fisheries.” The MFC Accreditation Manual also outlines logistics and topics relevant to other chain of custody programs including confidentiality and compliance.
The primary objective of this project is to develop the framework for a cooperative volunteer program that uses Radio Frequency Data Identification (RFID) or other technology and cross sector partnerships to certify Maine born, raised and processed meats and promotes the added value of those products in the marketplace.
Additionally, the project seeks to:
- Build a cross sector network of farmers and food business across the supply chain who can define core components of a cooperative meat traceability program
- Strengthen relationships and information-sharing across the supply chain
- Increase awareness of traceability technology options and applications for small and mid-sized farms
- Build the foundation for implementing a cooperative meat traceability program and companion marketing and promotion campaign
- Build consumer awareness of the value of traceability in verifying born, grown and processed Maine meats and in ensuring the quality of meat products.
- Assure consumers they are receiving the value of a local brand so their efforts to support our Maine Red Meat industries are in fact doing just that.
|June – August 2018||Research to better understand requirements for special claims made on labeling for meat products and how certification programs operate.||
|Sept. – Nov.||Phone meetings with companies that offer third-party verification programs for local process verified products.||Farmer Advisory Committee, individuals from Maine Department of Agriculture, University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative participated in interviews with 2 companies.|
|Advisory Committee considers co-marketing and co-branding agreements as an alternative to a certification program.||The committee reviewed information on co-marketing and co-branding agreements as an alternative to a certification program but decided this did not meet their goals.|
|Dec. 2018 – Feb. 2019||Developed draft standard language for a Certified Maine Meat Program.||Using standard language from the South Dakota certified beef program, we developed draft standard language for Maine that outlined what requirements might be for farms participating in a certification program. It was decided that the program would certify animals as opposed to farms.|
|Outreach to a Maine organization that offers certification programs for farms.||A participant on the Advisory Committee connected the project to MOFGA Certification Services LLC to provide additional input on the draft standards language.|
|Advisory Committee connects with Maine legislator working on a labeling bill for Maine meat products.||Draft standard language and input from the Advisory Committee was shared with a legislator submitting a bill to require that meat products labeled as “Maine” be “born, raised, and processed” in state.|
|March – May 2019||Developed outline for certification program manual.||
|June – August||Input on draft manual.||
|Sept. – Oct.||Draft Manual Finalized and shared with stakeholders.||
USDA Third-Party Programs that Verify Source
- We learned that there are two types of USDA source and age verification programs that producers can use to verify the source of their meat products in order to make a special label claim such as “Maine born, raised and processed.” These are the Process Verified Program (PVP) and Quality System Assessment (QSA) Program. Information is attached that compares both programs.
- Several states west of the Mississippi promote “local” meat brands by either operating their own source verified programs (North Dakota) or by contracting with Samson Inc., a third-party certifier for process verified beef products (Wyoming and Nebraska).
- A detailed comparison of information on three third-party certifier programs is attached.
Labeling for Meat Products
- A label or logo that indicates that a meat product is “Born, Raised and Processed in Maine” would be considered a “special claim” and would require a process for verifying the claim for both the farm and processor.
- Individual farms could make this claim if they have a state- (and a federal if selling out of state-) approved process in place for verifying the claim. This could be as simple as an affidavit however one of the reasons for this project is to create a tighter tracking system since the perception exists that affidavits are open to exploitation.
- Alternately (or in conjunction with individual farms that implement traceability), a state certification program for “Maine Born, Raised and Processed” meats could exist and certify farms willing to pay a fee to participate and to implement the necessary tracking measures.
- The label approval process and protocols required for special claims on meat sold in and out of state are essentially the same but different paperwork is submitted to both the state and federal agencies. The federal agency that approves special label claims is the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Need for a Third-Party Certification Program for Maine Meat
Seven farms provided direct input into the Certification Program manual. Because this project was underway, these farms and the project were able to provide input into Maine legislation developed in response to concern that some meat products labeled as “Maine” include ingredients from animals raised or processed out of state and are misleading consumers who believe they’re buying a local product. The Maine legislature passed a bill in spring 2019 that requires greater transparency in labeling for meat products. The meat certification program developed through this project is envisioned as a complement to this legislation and would provide a vehicle that farms could use to verify local product.
Alternatives Appear to Exist to Establishing a State Third Party Certification Program
As an alternative to an independently operated certification program, individual farms could be source-verified and work together to cooperatively promote and market their Maine products through co-branding and/or co-marketing agreements. Theoretically these farms would need to form a partnership, develop a logo that could be added to their individual farm labels, and obtain state/federal approval for making a special label claim and related processes to verify it. The group involved in this project was NOT interested in this option and felt there are benefits to farms for establishing an independent certification program which would establish standards for how local product is verified.
More Research Needed
The draft certification program manual developed through this project needs additional input from processors and from a third-party certifier to assess the costs of requirements proposed in the manual. Because the benefits to farms from participating in a local certification program won’t accrue until after the program and its brand have recognition in the marketplace, it’s anticipated that resources and subsidies will be required to pilot and market a program for a long-enough test period that farmers see benefits from participation.
The More Maine Meat Chain of Custody Project started as an effort to research and develop a manual to describe how a meat traceability program could operate in Maine. The project evolved into a manual for a third-party verified certification program for Maine animals (red meat) and high expectations in the state for seeing the program tested.
Our project relied heavily on leadership from a group of producers in defining what a program should include and how it should operate. The process involved developing a draft certification program manual using language from a certified program operated by a state, along with information from program manuals for organic and grass-fed beef certification programs. An advisory group of farmers worked together to edit text and define the program based on their experience, input from a third-party certifier and a processor.
The project successfully resulted in a manual that can serve as a guide to establishing a certification program in Maine. If funds are successfully raised to run a pilot, there are several anticipated benefits to cooperating farms:
- It’s expected that the program will complement new state legislation that requires that meat products labeled as “Maine” be born, raised and processed in state unless an exemption is granted. The certification program is envisioned as a vehicle for verifying that producers are selling product that comply with this new state labeling requirement.
- Farms that sell certified animals and products from certified animals are expected to be able to command a higher premium in the marketplace because of their ability to verify through a rigorous system that their products are born, raised and processed in state.
- Advertising for the “Certified Maine brand” is expected to increase consumer awareness of the value of locally raised and processed meat products.
- Advertising for the brand is also expected to increase consumer awareness of existing farms, and retailers and restaurants that sell their product.
- Demand for verified local meat and meat products may encourages processors to expand capacity which would address current infrastructure challenges in the state.
- Because the program will work with RFID technology – a technology most Maine producers aren’t using – the program will support farms to develop skills to use a technology that can also be beneficial to overall herd management.
- The added value per animal for certification won’t be clear until the details of operating a pilot are determined. One of the third-party certifiers interviewed during the project said their research indicates local certification that includes vaccination certification adds about $13/animal. The company operates in the Midwest.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
-Personal email distribution from MESAS Board Member to list of 25 interested stakeholders
- Information on three companies providing third-party certified programs presented via webinar to UMaine Cooperative Extension staff, staff from the Maine Dept. of Ag, Conservation and Forestry, staff from the Independent Shared Services Cooperative, and 6 farmers.
- November 2018 and October 2019 MESAS Board of Directors Meetings including board members who work for Cooperative Extension, serve as board members or staff for nonprofit farms and/or work as farmers at their own businesses.
- Project information presented as part of the MESAS Board of Directors Meeting at the 2019 Maine Ag Trades Show.
- Presentation to Leadership from Maine Farm Bureau and Maine Dept of Ag on 9/24/19 in Augusta.
- Presentation to Agriculture Council of Maine
- Direct email correspondence to share draft manual and next steps with individuals who provided input or participated in meetings
- Direct email correspondence from MESAS Board Member to people involved in years past with the MESAS More Maine Meat project.
- Materials posted on the MESAS website
- Increased awareness of existing traceability and source verification programs and technology being used in the marketplace.
- Increased understanding of federal and state logo and labeling requirements for special claims
- Increased participation in the project by farmers recognizing how source verification or traceability can be used to increase consumer awareness of products that are locally sourced
- Agreement that the group wants to focus initially on certifying or verifying Maine born, raised, and process meat without other requirements for the label such as organic.
This project resulted in the creation of a draft program manual that describes how a certification program for Maine Born, Raised and Harvested animals could operate.
- Individual farmers involved in developing the manual were able to provide input into 2019 Maine legislation which established a requirement that meat products labeled as “Maine” be born, raised and processed in state unless an exemption due to economic hardship is granted by the Maine Department of Agriculture. This new legislation is seen as complementary to a certification program.
- Farmers were able to come to agreement on focusing the certification “brand” on product from Maine without additional requirements on how the product is raised or the quality of the product.
- Farmers involved have a greater understanding of business challenges that may be involved in operating a financially viable program which may inform how strict program requirements may be and how many animals need to participate for the program to sustain itself.
- This project educated everyone involved on the options for certification programs, on the limitations and costs of USDA process verified programs and overall how certification can work.
This program answered the questions it sought to and created a resource that Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society can use to develop a certification program. From a project director perspective, one of the most significant challenges was obtaining input from the farmers involved due to their limited capacity throughout the year. Their input was critical to determine how a program could work for farmers but required their review of lengthy written materials. Additionally, meeting in person was much more effective for gathering input but was very difficult to schedule. Projecting the draft manual on a screen and live-editing was effective for helping to focus the discussion at meetings.
Resources we obtained well into the project that would have been helpful to have early on include standards language from the South Dakota certified local program and program manuals for organic and grassfed beef certifications.
Final report materials for the project include an outline of steps needed to develop and implement a pilot certification program. MESAS expects to seek funding to pilot the program in partnership with another Maine organization that currently offers other types of farm certifications.