SPRINGDALE, ARK. — Consumers increasingly want to know how their food is produced. When it comes to beef, they want to know how animals are cared for – they want guarantees that it is safe and that it has been produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Until recently, the U.S. beef industry has not always made the beef production process as transparent as it could be. Some branded beef programs offer transparency, but they are a small fraction of the industry. Beef industry detractors often use the lack of transparency as a weapon when targeting beef eating.

However, a new partnership between Tyson Foods Inc. and the largest feedlot cooperative in the U.S. is changing the conversation. They have joined forces to offer the beef industry’s first-ever program that gives consumers key assurances about the beef they eat. The program has the potential to reshape the entire industry.

Tyson Fresh Meats in August became the first beef processor to license the Progressive Beef program, a cattle management and sustainability program for feedlot operators. It is the largest ever cattle sustainability program. More than 1 million cattle are currently cared for annually through the program at certified feedyards that are primarily located in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. The program helps heighten accountability and transparency through a verification system that involves U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved auditors, according to Tyson. The feedlots certified in the program focus efforts in three areas: cattle care, food safety and environmental sustainability. They are verified twice a year.

Now more than ever, consumers are demanding to know more about the beef they buy, said Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson Fresh Meats, a division of Tyson Foods. Tyson wants to not only help its customers answer questions from consumers but also help the beef industry address these questions. Tyson sees an opportunity to lead efforts to more quickly gain adoption of these proven best production practices throughout the entire beef industry, he said.

Tyson knows that by licensing the Progressive Beef program, it will begin to reshape how the industry does business, said Chad Martin, Tyson’s senior vice-president for beef. Tyson invites others to join it in raising the standard so everyone can confidently address consumers’ concerns. The license will also allow Tyson Fresh Meats to work with its customers to fulfill a need to offer a beef program that creates a higher confidence level for consumers while differentiating themselves from other beef programs. Beef has an amazing story to tell and the program will allow Tyson’s customers to do that. The program also aligns exactly with what Tyson’s purpose is as a food company, he said.

Feedlot focus

The program’s driving force has been feedlot cooperative The Beef Marketing Group (B.M.G.), based in Manhattan, Kas. It designed the program in 2000 and has grown it into a quality management systems approach to beef production with the goal of bringing transparency and verification to consumers. B.M.G. offshoot Progressive Beef L.L.C. developed and currently manages the program. The B.M.G. has eight feedlot owners and has 325,000 head of feeding capacity in 18 feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska. Not in the group but in the Progressive Beef program are several other feedlot operators. Their combined feeding capacity is 400,000.

Tyson and the B.M.G. are keen to see many more feedlots join the Progressive Beef program. They want the program to be widely adopted for the good of the beef industry and its long-term profitability. Tyson in fact, consciously decided to license the program rather than buy it so feedlot operators would not see it as a packer program, Mr. Stouffer said.

Tyson Progressive Beef appCertification of a new feedlot takes eight to 10 months, said John Butler, chief executive officer of the B.M.G. and Progressive Beef. The cost of becoming certified varies based on what a feedlot already has in place. Feedlots that already have extensive practices in place that address cattle care, food safety and environmental sustainability will pay very little. The program is not a profit center and costs are designed only to cover the cost of the audits, training and materials, Mr. Butler said.

Becoming certified starts with two internal audits of a feedlot by Progressive Beef’s three-person audit team and then a third-party audit. Once certified, a feedlot receives both a Progressive Beef and a third-party audit once a year. Each audit is very much like a report card, according to Progressive Beef. Upon completion, the feedyard receives a score. The metrics involved play a key role in the Progressive Beef path of continuous improvement, the company said.

Under cattle care, all feedlot employees are required to be Beef Quality Assurance-certified, Mr. Butler said. The feedlot must follow 43 standard operating procedures. Food safety covers pen cleaning, clean water troughs, feed mill sanitation management and other areas. Regarding sustainability, all feedlots must comply with state regulations, he said. Also considered are a feedlot’s broader efforts in its community. For example, the B.M.G.’s feedlot in Great Bend, Kas., has a program that composts its manure and makes that compost free to the community, Mr. Butler said.

Supply chain assurance

Tyson has been pressed for a long time by its customers on behalf of consumers to create more transparency in the way beef is produced, Mr. Stouffer said. Without a viable transparency standard, the beef industry has been publicly scrutinized by industry detractors. Tyson has been frustrated about the lack of a program to address this. Officials looked at various programs and the Progressive Beef program was the best they saw. Tyson believes the program will grow quickly, he said.

In fact, Tyson is so convinced about the importance of the program to the industry that its goal is to buy 2 million program cattle in the first year and half of all its cattle under the program after three years. Tyson in fiscal 2017 processed 6.760 million cattle, all fed steers and heifers. Most of the more than one million head already cared for through the program go to its Amarillo, Texas; Finney County, Kas.; Lexington, Neb.; and Pasco, Wash., plants.

Once Tyson has customers ready to use the Progressive Beef (P.B.) label, it will start segregating program-certified cattle from feedlots all the way through its plants, Mr. Martin said. This will mean another sort through the plants and their coolers. The P.B. label will apply to every single part of an animal, including hides. Leather users also want to know all about the program’s three areas of focus, he said. Through the program, Tyson will be adding to the tens of thousands of S.K.U.s (stock keeping units) that it already handles in its plants, Mr. Martin said.

Tyson will offer P.B. beef to all its customers at retail and food service and overseas, Mr. Martin said. It knows that some of its largest customers are very interested in the program. Tyson does not yet know how customers will use the P.B. label. Each customer might use it a little differently, he said. A retailer might put the label on a package and have point-of-purchase material about the program. A food service operator might use its website and social media to publicize the program, he said.

Customers might pay a little more for P.B. beef because of the added plant costs, Mr. Stouffer said. But Tyson’s long-term strategy is for this beef to become a commodity everyone uses.