Closing the GAP

GAP Certification Can Only Be Authorized by EarthClaims

by Kayla Sargent

Cate Doubet Photo.

“GAP certified” may be listed in the sale catalog when a set of calves comes through the ring and the auctioneer exclaims, “these have all the bells and whistles, folks.”  Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certification may be worth the mounds of paperwork and the ranch audit that producers undertake to fetch a premium on sale day.

Until just recently, producers had the option of working with on-farm auditors from several third-party verification companies, including EarthClaims and IMI Global, to become GAP certified.  On November 11, GAP announced an exclusive partnership with EarthClaims LLC. EarthClaims will be the only verification service available to provide GAP certification on farms and ranches in North American and the Caribbean.

GAP Executive Director Anne Malleau said the move was a “smart business decision.”

“As we move into our second decade, we find that the marketplace is evolving in many ways and believe EarthClaims is in the best position to evolve with GAP,” she said.

EarthClaims has worked with GAP since the program’s inception in 2008 and “is a leading provider of certification services.”  Malleau said over 1,700 cattle operations currently hold GAP certification.

IMI Global CoFounder and President Leann Saunders said her company issues about 1,500 GAP certifications each year.  On November 11, IMI Global was alerted that their partnership was terminated with GAP.

“We had absolutely no prior warning,” Saunders told WAR.  “We had been working with GAP for nine years.  We didn’t even get a phone call.”

The abrupt termination made Saunders skeptical of the GAP program moving forward.  She said she doesn’t trust the program now “because they weren’t honest with us or our producer customers and I have no idea of their long-term intentions.”

Current GAP certifications issued by IMI Global will still be honored until the expiration date.  At that point, to remain GAP certified producers must work with EarthClaims.  Malleau told WAR that “bringing all operations certified to the GAP program under a single, unified system will obviously occur on a rolling basis over a full certification cycle.”

As of November 30, all new certifications or renewals will only be conducted by EarthClaims. Malleau said “ensuring timely access to certification services” is a priority and is confident EarthClaims can meet the demand of the program.

“EarthClaims was the first certification body accepted by the GAP program and has more than ten years of experience with our program and knows our processes,” Malleau said. “Based on that experience, EarthClaims has built the expandable infrastructure necessary to be able to grow with the program.  EarthClaims have recently focused on developing additional auditing assets specific to the Western region and has demonstrated a commitment to client service.”

GAP Standards…

Currently, there are five tiers of GAP certification for beef cattle, with each adding extra requirements to promote animal welfare.  The most basic requirements include cattle on pasture except when finishing; protection from extreme weather; 50 percent coverage on pasture; specific weaning and castration practices; and a maximum 25 hour transit.  The most extreme level requires a lifetime on pasture; no feedlots permitted; 75 percent coverage on pasture; natural weaning; no physical alteration, including castration; and no transportation, spending their lifetime on the same operation.  Every GAP level also dictates cattle are free of antibiotics, hormones, and animal byproducts.  Each certified operation must be inspected every 15 months by an EarthClaims auditor.

The most stringent of requirements may cause a cattle producer to raise an eyebrow.  Raising bulls on pasture their entire lives until a mobile slaughter unit comes to the ranch?  Even the many GAP beef partners listed on the website max out at Step Four where a 16-hour transport and castration are allowed, but the cattle must never be confined in a feedlot.

“I personally spent years defending GAP to many skeptics,” IMI’s Saunders said.  “Many of them didn’t like the GAP Standard and knew that some of the elements really didn’t promote good animal care, in fact in some instances the opposite.”

When GAP was founded by Whole Foods Market (WFM) CEO John Mackey in 2008, “he felt change in animal agriculture would be easier if there was a framework in place to support farmers and reward improvement.”  Just three short years later, 100 percent of the beef, pork and chicken sold in WFM meat departments was GAP certified.

Saunders said initially adding GAP certification to their offering took “significant resources to get the news out to potential suppliers to the WFM supply chains.”  IMI Global added the program certification to meet the requests of several major beef suppliers.

Receiving little explanation as to GAP’s decision to terminate the partnership with IMI Global, Saunders speculated a desire to “have more control over the certification decisions and suppliers to WFM, because WFM and GAP aren’t separate, they are one and the same.”

Originally creating standards to address producer concerns and work in partnership with farmers and ranchers to transform the food system, the program quickly grew.  Since its inception, GAP has accepted partnerships with animal rights groups like the Humane Society and American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

“Our certified farm and ranch partners are the backbone of our organization, but we continue to diversify our program to include more partners and stakeholders,” Malleau said.

Sitting on the GAP Board of Directors are Dr. Sara Shields, Behavior and Welfare Specialist for Humane Society International, and ASPCA President and CEO Matthew Bershadker.  An ASPCA meat label guide urges consumers to seek out meats labeled with GAP Level Two and higher.

In a letter sent to IMI Global customers, Saunders urged caution for producers who wish to continue with program certification.  She said EarthClaims is headed by an attorney and headquartered in Washington D.C.  She added that a common “sticking point” between GAP and IMI Global was the fact that IMI Global “would not share documentation on our independent customers.”

Programs on the Horizon…

EarthClaims CEO W.J. Friedman expressed excitement to add “exclusive” GAP certification to their long line of programs including “Certified Organic, Never Ever 3, NHTC, Source and Age, or Non-GMO Verified.”  Friedman said moving forward, EarthClaims will “be ready to add new GAP programs as they roll out.”

“This is an exciting time,” GAP’s Malleau said.  “GAP is committed to meeting the needs of its program participants and their consumers first and is considering several new and innovative programs.  Because we are committed to a transparent and multi-stakeholder process, it takes time to get new programs developed and launched.”

IMI Global’s Saunders said over the last five years, certifications for GAP have “been fairly stagnant compared to other verification markets.”  Saunders said Source, Age and NHTC have experienced the most growth in demand, “driven by the opening of the China market.”

IMI Global quickly found the silver lining in the lost partnership with GAP.

“After we got through the shock we immediately realized that it had also kept us from innovating and providing new services to our customers,” Saunders said.  “So our complete focus now is on launching those new opportunities to our great customers.

“With adversity typically comes great opportunity,” she added.  “As one of our customers said recently, ‘when one door closes two others will open if you are watching.’  We are so excited to move on and to truly innovate.  My husband and I started this business from the ground up and we love all of the other entrepreneurial customers that we have. My dad, a cow/calf producer in New Mexico said, ‘let’s get going, what’s the new program?’.”

By January 1, 2020, IMI Global will launch a new sustainability standard for cow/calf, stocker and backgrounder customers called “BeefCare.”  BeefCare will provide customers value-added verification to new sustainability standards that meet those dictated by the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB). The USRSB is a group made up of producers, feeders, packers, retailers and food service operators.

“There are many retailers and food service operators today that would like to communicate a much broader message of sustainability to consumers than just animal welfare,” Saunders said.  “The three elements of the BeefCare standard are animal husbandry, environmental stewardship and people and community.  We understand the great sacrifice our farm and ranch customers make to do all of these things the right way.  We want to help them add value by third-party verifying them to a standard that can be branded through multiple supply chains.”


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