In Alberta there is a slogan, "If it ain't Alberta, it ain't beef." Those words have turned into a success for Canada's first branded beef product - Original Alberta Beef.

The concept for the branded product got its start three years ago when XL Foods, a small Canadian-based packer, conducted surveys to see what could be done to get consumers to eat more beef, says Rod Coughlin, procurement manager for XL Foods.

"We found that consumers want portion control, a consistent product and when they find quality they'll eat it again," says Coughlin.

"A cheaper price will not create demand, it's quality," he adds.

XL Foods, whose Calgary plant kills 850-1,000 head/day, was also looking for a way to position itself in a market dominated by large companies.

"XL is a smaller company, therefore our goal is niche marketing offering a higher quality product," says Coughlin.

From those ideas the Original Alberta Beef program was born. Last year 100,000 cattle qualified for the program.

Like many branded programs, Original Alberta Beef has it's unique specifications, but XL Foods prides itself most on their beef quality assurance specifications that start with each producer.

Meat Program "What we've done is told the producer this is what the consumer wants, and they've got to meet that recipe. Every year they (the producers) get a little better," Coughlin says.

That recipe includes a very specific protocol for beef quality assurance measures, but is not breed specific.

"This is a meat program, not a cattle program or a breed program," says Coughlin.

"Every breed has its merits and works in the program. Usually it's a crossbred of British and Continental, but we've had cattle of every color in the rainbow nail it," says Coughlin.

By "nail it" Coughlin means cattle must meet the following criteria:

* Be finished on a high-grain diet for a minimum 120 days at an Alberta feedlot.

* Dressed hot carcass weight between 575-765 lbs.

* Injection sites in neck only, coupled with prescribed feedlot health management.

* Clean hide.

* No electric prods or excessive use of whips.

* Humane handling and loading (50 head maximum tri-axel or 45 head maximum per potload).

* AAA marble.

* Yield grade (59-64/A1)

* No brand.

* No by-product condemnation.

* White fat finish - no bulls, stags or heiferettes, no horns, no bruising, no hump.

Price discovery for the seller is the CanFax average of the previous week's price. In addition, if all of the above conditions are met a 10% premium will be paid.

If conditions are not met for brand, by-product condemnation and grade, the scale drops by 1-2%. For example, if none of the animals are branded, the producer will get a 10% premium, if they are branded it's a 9% premium. Cattle grading below 54% will not qualify.

"The worst a producer will do is the CanFax average," says Coughlin. Average premium through the program is about 75 cents to $3/cwt.

Of the protocol, Coughlin says, "If a new producer wants to come on board they must sign an agreement to the protocol. They are all mandatory. We'll forgive a few horns, however, butt injections are a big no-no."

Coughlin says there are four management strategies producers can utilize to help qualify for the Original Alberta Beef program: maturity of cattle, days on feed, implant program and genetics.

Alberta's Cattleland Feedyards assistant manager Norman Kuntz says he sees producers putting more emphasis on their management because of the program. Cattleland has two facilities with a combined one-time feedlot capacity of 40,000 head.

"We are seeing a significant increase in British influence in cattle because of Original Alberta Beef and its emphasis on marbling and carcass size," says Kuntz. He notes that producers are also paying more attention to implant programs so as not to dilute the marbling.

Kuntz says at Cattleland they also sort cattle for better marketing results.

Guaranteed Good Once animals qualify for the branded product, they must also meet specifications for a fabrication protocol which include:

* Carcasses being checked for cleanliness and bacteria,

* Before cutting the product is checked again to qualify for marbling and yield grade,

* Minimum aging of 14 days before going to the store,

* All cuts are trimmed to maximum 11/44-in. of fat, and

* Date of production is stamped on the product label.

Carcass information is sent to producers for free. Coughlin says their future goal is to identify producers with a good history and keep them in the program.

Because of their protocol, XL Foods also stands behind their product with a guarantee.

"In three years we've had two steaks returned to us," says Coughlin. "I'd say that tells us the consumer has accepted the product."

And don't let the name fool you. Original Alberta Beef can be found in grocery stores and restaurants throughout Canada's provinces.

"Quebec is a huge importer of Alberta beef. They love it," says Coughlin.

Many grocery chains carrying the branded product have found it is attracting repeat business from customers. He and Kuntz credit that to the product's consistency.

"The most consistent product we have in our industry is the Big Mac - not at the higher end of our product. Original Alberta Beef has addressed that and is being successful because of it," says Cattleland's Kuntz.