Quality Assurance in the Elk Industry

As a consumer, how comfortable are you in purchasing and eating elk products such as meat and elk velvet antler products? With CWD (mistakenly equated with mad cow disease) stories circulating in the media, who could blame the ordinary consumer from shying away from our products.

It is critical to the success of our industry that we implement systems to ensure the safety and health of our consumable products. It is equally important that we convince the consumer that our deer and elk products are completely safe (and good for you), and make them aware of the comprehensive systems we have in place to do so.

The Alberta Elk Association, representing over 400 producers in this western Canadian province, has done just that. What the AEA has done serves as an excellent model for other associations and jurisdictions to follow.

Alberta’s elk industry has implemented a Quality Assurance (QA) program designed to ensure safety and enhance consumer confidence in the industry and its products. Most of the QA protocols are based in federal and provincial legislation, while others are voluntarily supported.

Alberta’s Quality Assurance components include the following:

  1. Product safety – products are processed from farm to consumer in a manner that ensures food safety.
  2. Products of consistent high quality – products are processed, formulated, packaged and labeled using protocols that promote quality and consistency.
  3. Exemplary care of animals – the farmed elk industry proactively leads, researches and improves elk care, management and health.
  4. Minimal impact on the environment – by nature, farmed elk have a low impact on the environment. The industry is committed to ensuring that farming practices minimize environment impact.

The elk industry in Alberta is also committed to implementing the national On-farm Food Safety Program, currently under development in all livestock industries. As well, the industry is looking forward to the new Natural Health Products regulations being enacted by the Canadian government. These regulations apply to products such as vitamins and nutraceutical products. Elk velvet antler products will fall under these regulations.

Here is a more detailed description of each of the components and how they contribute to the Quality Assurance program.

Animal and product traceability

  1. Alberta Livestock Industry Diversification Act (LIDA). This Act regulates the production of cervid species, including elk, and is an important base for industry QA. The audited animal and antler inventory required under this Act provides absolute traceability of animals and antler to the farm and animal of origin.
  2. Velvet antler processing policy. This policy of the Government of Alberta ensures that all antlers transported and processed with the province, and from outside the province, are tagged as to the source of origin and traceable from raw product to consumer product lot number.

Health risk prevention

  1. Food production safety. The Velvet Antler Removal Certification Program is a mandatory producer training program required for all farmers who remove their own velvet antler. In addition to the humane removal of antler, producers are trained in antler growth, antler removal legislation, industry responsibilities, product handling and animal nutrition as it pertains to antler quality. The elk industry is pursuing a HACCP based, Canadian On-farm Food Safety Program.
  2. Import protocols. For several years, Alberta has not allowed any elk or other farmed cervids to enter the province. Proposed new import protocols will allow movement of animals into the province that have met high health criteria.
  3. Antler GMP/HACCP (voluntary). Buyers and distributors of antler products can determine whether the expectations of their consumers and regulators are met by seeking specific information from individual processors and distributors regarding the QA protocols they have in place, including whether their QA procedures are certified, externally audited and recognized.
  4. Meat HACCP. All elk meat and meat products sold must meet the national and provincial Meat Inspections Act standards including HACCP monitored processing.

Health status

  1. CWD surveillance. No cases of Chronic Wasting Disease have been detected in Alberta’s farmed or wild elk population under the Alberta CWD Surveillance Program.
  2. Disease management. All farmed elk are tested for reportable diseases as per protocols established by the Government of Canada’s Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Reportable diseases are effectively controlled and eliminated by the CFIA when identified. Non-reportable diseases are detected and controlled by local veterinarians and producers.

Certification

  1. Compliance with Acts. Elk farms and operators must be licensed by the Province of Alberta each year. Ongoing licensure is dependent upon compliance with all Acts and Regulations pertaining to the industry.
  2. Natural Health Products Regulations. The Government of Canada is developing the Natural Health Products Regulations to ensure that registered products meet safety and quality standards. As these regulations will affect elk velvet antler products, the AEA supports this initiative and is providing input to the government.

Animal care and welfare

  1. Cervid Code of Practice. Elk industry producers must agree to abide by the “Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Deer (Cervidae)” developed by the Canadian Agri-food Research Council. The Alberta Elk Association endorsed this Code of Practice in 1989 and included it in the AEA Member Code of Conduct.
  2. Velvet Antler Removal Certification Program. This program addresses the humane removal of antler including animal welfare responsibilities, animal handling and restraint, antler removal anesthesia, antler removal techniques and the appropriate use of antiseptics and medications. The program was developed in cooperation with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association and requires that the producer establish and maintain a veterinary-client relationship. The program is an industry requirement under the Veterinary Professions Act and is identified in the regulations under the LIDA.
  3. AFAC Affiliation (voluntary). The Alberta Elk Association is an active member of the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association and promotes the continuous improvement of animal well-being.

Environmental sustainability

  1. LIDA compliance. LIDA and the Provincial Wildlife Act require elk producers to follow certain protocols that strive to eliminate the possibility of disease transfer and the mixing of the gene pools of wild elk populations and farm elk. Elk farming is noted for its low environmental impact.

As comprehensive as this program is, I still believe that it is missing one critical component – the capability for the consumer to determine the originating farm for the products. Yes, by using lot numbers the government can track where the product came from, but they would do so only if major problems arose. It would be nice if the consumer could look at the label on the package and be able to easily find out the country, state and farm from which it came.

Associations and the elk industry in all jurisdictions must implement Quality Assurance systems to ensure safe and healthy products. And, by the way, don’t forget to let the consumer and general public know what you are doing.