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Editorial: Building bridges

Earlier this month the A&W restaurant chain may have taken a significant step towards rebuilding its battered image with the nation’s cattle farmers.

The company has been the source of much controversy in recent years after it introduced a marketing strategy branding the beef in its burgers as free of hormones and other growth promoters.

Many beef producers see that as a slight on their production practices and the safety and wholesomeness of the food they produce. Other farmers have taken up the cause in solidarity and the chain has become the restaurant farmers love to hate.

On December 1, the company announced a $5-million donation to the University of Saskatchewan to help construct a building at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence, create a community outreach program and fund a visiting research fellowship for the organization.

The university said in a statement that the centre will work “to meet the needs of both livestock producers and consumers in Canada, while also helping to sustainably produce food for a growing world population.”

Ordinarily the agriculture sector loves nothing more than sending out congratulatory missives when someone steps up to the plate and makes a donation for research or public outreach or when a positive policy pronouncement is made.

At times it can be a bit overwhelming, the genial bonhomie and self-congratulation, but in truth, it serves to send a signal of solidarity amongst the sector and to policy-makers.

It alerts others that attention is being paid, and grants credit where credit is due, to name just a couple of the real-world functions of these sort of polite niceties.

In just the past few weeks there has been a flood of approving statements regarding the federal government’s decision to continue to allow the use of cash ticket deferrals to manage income. Likewise, various groups have exhorted the federal government to press forward with the TPP talks or to pay particular attention to a certain nuance of the NAFTA negotiations.

Just a few weeks earlier, of course, there was the furor accompanying the federal government’s proposed changes to taxing small corporations and the accompanying flurry of releases and statements.

It would seem there are few issues touching on agriculture that the sector would view as too small or insignificant for comment.

That’s why silence accompanying this recent announcement is all the more deafening.

Perhaps we missed the memos, but we haven’t seen much coming out of the sector acknowledging what is a significant donation by any definition. In fact, the size of the company’s donation makes it the project’s largest private contributor.

By way of comparison, the federal and provincial governments have ponied up a combined $10 million through Growing Forward 2, and the federal government a further $4.47 million through Western Economic Diversification Canada. The university itself has contributed $10 million. The Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association has kicked in $1 million.

Farmers may still not like A&W much, but this kind of contribution is tough to ignore.

While many may not agree with its market positioning, A&W is not the only business attempting to differentiate itself in the marketplace along ethical or social values.

Famously, the Earls restaurant chain found itself in the weeds when a similar commitment to “sustainably raised” beef really turned out to mean American beef, since there wasn’t an adequate supply of Canadian product.

The truth is none of these companies are doing anything without doing a tremendous amount of market research first. They’re large, sophisticated and well-run organizations. And it’s hard to argue with results.

While many companies in the fast-food sector, including McDonald’s and homegrown favourite Tim Horton’s, have struggled, A&W has thrived and now touts itself as Canada’s fastest-growing burger brand.

So before pointing fingers at companies making a go of it by catering to the whims of the market, perhaps producers should consider whether they’re simply wilfully ignoring market signals.

In the past, the sector has drawn on its account of public goodwill, and won every battle. But battles can be won and wars still lost.

Eventually that account could run dry, especially if the cattle sector continues to insist the market should shut up about what it wants and gratefully take what’s being produced.

That’s called a command economy and it’s what the Soviets had prior to 1989. It didn’t work for them and it won’t work for us, for exactly the same reasons.

You simply can’t tell people what they want.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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