Filling the GAP: Global Animal Partnership ends relationship with IMI Global | TSLN.com

Filling the GAP: Global Animal Partnership ends relationship with IMI Global

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News
Leann Saunders, owner and founder of IMI Global, conducts a field audit as part of her company's third-party verification services. Photo courtesy Leann Saunders

The cease and desist letter from the Global Animal Partnership came as a complete surprise to John and Leann Saunders, founders of IMI Global, a third-party food industry verification company headquartered in Castle Rock, Colo. For nine years IMI had been a verifier for the Global Animal Partnership, or GAP, and certified thousands of cattle producers in a value-added system that supplies natural beef primarily to Whole Foods. Without warning on Nov. 11 IMI was told they were terminated as a certifying body, leaving Saunders, their staff and their 1,500 GAP-enrolled ranchers and cattle feeders wondering what they would do with a broken link in the value-added chain. The terms from GAP allow IMI to continue to perform audits until Nov. 29 and issue certificates until Dec. 13. All existing certified members would be grandfathered in until their 15-month certificate expires. And then? The only alternative is the Washington, D.C.-based group Earth Claims.

“We’re really not sure what happened,” says Leann Saunders. “What was interesting to us was no one ever picked up the phone and asked us or tried to work through this with us. It was all very abrupt.”

However, the slammed door may have an even better proverbial open window, as the Saunders innovate a new way to add value to program cattle – this time on the terms of those with their boots on the ground.

The GAP program is a non-profit organization started in 2008 by the CEO of Whole Foods, noted vegan John Mackey. Although officially a separate entity, the program remains closely paralleled to Whole Foods. Board members include the president of Whole Foods along with reps from Humane Society International and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others. GAP outlines five progressive levels of standards of animal welfare members choose to practice. Ranchers, auction barns, feedlots and packing plants identify their desired level of certification, then a third-party auditor confirms practices and claims. All GAP levels include criteria of no antibiotics or growth hormones, strict standards on weaning, castration and transportation time, limited time in a feedlot setting, and no animal by-products, to name just a few. The highest level requires the entire life span of the animal must be on farm pastures – never in any feedlot setting, never transported anywhere, with no physical alterations and weaned naturally. The standards are highly influenced by a movement far removed from the daily work of efficient food production. Producers who enrolled in GAP most often do so reticently – documentation is cumbersome and standards are often counterproductive to progressive management and good animal care, despite their intentions.

But although controversial, GAP provided a value-added outlet for ranchers and feeders. Participation in the program is driven solely on the concept of good business savvy and offering what the customer wants. Cattle enrolled in the program typically bring a premium.

Members like Jerry Wulf, a Limousin breeder and large-scale cattle feeder from Morris, Minn., who certifies almost 50 percent of his beef placements through GAP, say they do it because their customers want it and are willing to pay a premium for the certification.

That process requires verification companies like IMI to bring all parties – even those with divergent opinions – together to make the value-added chain work, and they’ve been successful at it. Until someone grabbed the bolt cutters.

In a press release to their customers, IMI stated, “We no longer trust anything this organization is doing. We encourage you to be discerning and cautious about your involvement with the GAP organization and their newly exclusive, Washington, D.C.-based certification body moving forward.”

Saunders says looking back she questions if they should have been more discerning about the basis of GAP from the start. She says there are many questions they have left to answer, but their main concern is for their customers and to maintain the market flow – fat cattle don’t keep, no matter how they are certified.

“There are a lot of things we work on with our customers every day – they work hard to deliver these products to retailers, and it takes years to build trust that can be shattered in a moment,” says Saunders. “Everybody is just kind of reeling from it, but our first thought was: ‘What do we do to protect our customers?’”

Like the true entrepreneurs they are, the Saunders in the same press release immediately announced the launch of a new third-party verified, value-added sustainability program to be branded Where Food Comes From – Care. This time, IMI is in the driver’s seat, and is able to take their working knowledge of the cattle industry (Leann’s family ranches in New Mexico) and years of relations built with ranchers and create a program on their terms. Refreshing to cattle producers, IMI states the program will be based on best practices like Beef Quality Assurance and will include an animal husbandry – not welfare, component.

“What is truly exciting about this opportunity is that it will be designed with producer input (both initial and ongoing) and provides the opportunity to make improvements based on sound science, proven animal care and broader sustainability practices – yet meets the growing demand consumers have for a program that addresses traceability, animal husbandry, environmental stewardship and transparency,” says IMI.

The new program will have approval through USDA as a Process Verified Program, but first the Saunders are seeking feedback from the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. This industry-wide collaborative group encourages the use of sound beef-raising practices but does not set standards or verify processes.

She says the response from their customers has been overwhelmingly positive. “We are all excited to tell our story and verify what we do in a way that truly represents us as caretakers of our land and our animals, and communicates standards consumers demand.” She also points out the termination from GAP does not affect any other IMI verification programs including NHTC, source and age, verified natural, organic, grassfed and others.

“We’re not thinking about GAP – GAP is the past. We didn’t plan for this to happen, but honestly, we woke up and feel we have been liberated in a way we never thought we could be,” says Saunders. The timeframe for the Care program is not yet defined, however, Saunders says they are solid in their commitment to their customers and in continuing the supply chain for customers like Wulf.

“IMI has provided us a good service for many years, and I’m not sure they were treated fairly,” says Wulf. “On the other hand, we have to try to find a solution and not let this get in the way of marketing our cattle.”

The GAP door might have closed, but an open window built by ranchers is likely to be a better fit than a door framed by activists.