We all know there is one breed that produces the best beef.
But ask a group of ranchers which breed that is, and you’ll get a whole bunch of different answers. They will also differ on “best” management practices, such as when to calve or what to feed, based on what works best on their ranches.
That’s free enterprise.
However, judging from beef producers’ swift and merciless reaction to the announcement by Canadian-owned Earls Kitchen and Bar restaurant chain last week, the free enterprise principle does not apply to their customers.
The message from the beef industry is loud and clear: you are morally bound to support us even if we don’t have what you want to buy.
Earls has decided to convert its entire restaurant chain of 66 locations (59 in Canada and seven in the U.S.), to using beef that is Certified Humane, a program run by the U.S. organization called Humane Farm Animal Care.
Its program promises beef raised, transported and processed according to an audited code of practice designed to ensure a high standard of animal welfare. Beef is also raised without the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, steroids, or added growth hormones.
However, Earls found — as did fast food giant A&W did when it developed its antibiotic-free and no added hormone marketing strategy — that the Canadian industry isn’t equipped to deliver product differentiated in that fashion.
The problem isn’t with the ranchers.
“All of the Alberta beef ranchers we have ever looked at comply with the Certified Humane program,”said Earl’s spokesperson Cate Simpson. The difficulty arose with finding feeders that don’t use growth hormones and antibiotics and slaughter facilities designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, who specializes in low-stress handling.
“In the end, our staff and guests told us that the welfare of the animals outweighed the country of origin,” said Simpson in an email.
So for now, Earls is now buying its Certified Humane beef from Kansas — and incurring the wrath of the Canadian beef lobby through social media campaigns urging a boycott of the restaurant.
Truth be told, Earls had trouble getting Alberta beef on a consistent basis even before this switch. It’s previous marketing promised customers Certified Angus Beef (CAB). Often that beef came from the U.S. because there wasn’t enough available in Canada.
The irony in all this is that the Canadian cattle industry works tirelessly to ensure that beef and cattle traded throughout North America knows no borders.
Secondly, there is nothing stopping Canadian producers from certifying with the U.S. program or developing their own equivalent program. The Certified Humane standards are within the reach of most.
The code of practice used by the Certified Humane program bears a striking similarity to the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle. The main differences are that the Canadian code is not audited, and it allows the continued use of growth implants and antibiotics in feed.
Contrary to some reports, the Certified Humane program does allow antibiotics, but only to treat animals that are sick. Given the growing global urgency around sustainable antibiotic use, it’s only a matter of time before that’s the industry norm.
It can be argued that raising cattle using growth promoters is better for the environment because the animals grow faster, producing more meat with fewer resources. But some beef-eaters don’t like them. That’s their choice.
We’re not saying we agree with Earls’ decision. We’re defending the company’s right to make it, just as we would defend producers’ rights to raise their preferred breed of cattle in a way that works best for their business.
Rather than lashing out at this customer’s choice, the Canadian beef value chain needs to address why it is either incapable or unwilling to serve these emerging markets for specialty beef. The Earls move is just one more example of a well-documented food industry trend to incorporate a food’s story into the marketing plan. This movement is gaining momentum — despite the industry’s recalcitrance.
The ethical eating story is a much easier sell than the prevailing mantra in agriculture, which is, our way is more efficient and there’s no proof that it’s bad for you.
Competition in the restaurant business is cut-throat. It is far easier to lose money than make it. The successful chains are the ones that cater to their customers’ tastes — even if they’re fanciful.
The beef industry can learn from that. When customers decide to leave your store and shop somewhere else, shaking your fist and shouting “how dare you!” is an unlikely strategy for winning them back.