Earls’ reversal wins battle, not war

One of Canada’s highest-profile food and agriculture commentators says the beef industry shouldn’t be celebrating victory over getting Earls to roll back its humane beef certification decision.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of marketing studies at the University of Guelph who frequently writes about food consumers and how they interact with the agriculture and food industry, says Canadian farmers are going to face more requests like it in the future. Too often their reaction to them is to take umbrage and dismiss them, rather than seek to understand why consumers might think as they do.

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“I think farmers want to talk to consumers, but they don’t seem to want to listen to them,” Charlebois said May 6 in a telephone interview, following a May 4 reversal by the restaurant chain. “This is symptomatic of a much larger problem.”

That’s problematic because consumer demographics are changing rapidly. Restaurant chains can’t afford to ignore this reality, Charlebois said, noting other restaurant chains have already made this sort of switch.

“The difference here is that Earls is primarily still a western Canadian chain,” Charlebois said. “I strongly suspect it made its decision to retreat from this based on its weekend sales numbers in places like Calgary.”

What beef producers should be concerned over is the fact the production and processing system is geared almost entirely to bulk commodity production to a single standard, while the market is increasingly fragmented. It’s a fundamental mismatch and one for which producers are, at least partially, responsible.

“To capture these opportunities, producers need to work together, but they don’t seem to want to,” Charlebois said. “It takes a crisis to make that happen.”

Unexpected reaction

Earls for its part made the move anticipating excitement, not condemnation.

On April 27, the chain tweeted, “This is really big. Earls is the first chain in North America to source beef from Certified Humane farms in all its restaurants.”

The backlash was immediate, with ranchers, beef industry officials, consumers, and some politicians voicing their displeasure with the company’s decision to stop sourcing beef from Canadian ranchers.

Humane Animal Care’s website lists standards for beef cattle that run to 30 pages and were developed by more than two dozen veterinarians, professors, and other animal welfare experts including Ed Pajor, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Calgary. Earls’ enthusiasm may unfairly tarnish consumer perception of Canadian beef ranchers, Pajor told CBC radio, and ignores steps the industry has already taken.

“I think producers don’t really get the credit they deserve,” Pajor said.

But, he added, the Canadian beef sector has also been slower to develop certification standards.

Members of the beef industry said they were disappointed Earls did not consult them first.

“If we could have had a dialogue, I’m sure we could have explained what we are doing to meet a lot of those requirements,” Canadian Cattlemen’s Association general manager Rob McNabb said before the reversal.

But he also conceded his organization wouldn’t be able to “provide the level of documentation that Earls was looking for.”

Moreover, there are no announced plans to have mandatory third-party audits for the still-to-be-finalized sustainable beef standards — a key feature of the Certified Humane program.

Earls said it spent more than two years trying to find sufficient supply of the latter for its 66 restaurants, but its two suppliers — Spring Creek Ranch Beef and the Alberta division of Colorado-based Aspen Ridge Natural Beef — couldn’t produce enough. They also said prior to the switch they tried to use Canadian beef, but frequently found it unavailable and used U.S.-produced beef as a substitute.

Questions

While the beef industry might think it’s a happy ending, Charlebois said new consumers have questions about their food and don’t apologize for it. Companies like Earls are, increasingly, going to cater to this reality because it makes good business sense and farmers and ranchers could see goodwill evaporate.

“If that happens, it will be very unfortunate,” Charlebois said.

The situation is challenging even for someone like Ben Campbell, a third-generation cow-calf producer from Black Diamond, Alberta who direct markets “ethically and naturally raised beef.”

On the one hand, he wasn’t happy with Earls’ initial move.

“What Earls has done is try to take a short take to show it is jumping on Day 1 to certified humane beef,” he said. “Whereas McDonald’s is trying to actively change the industry, Earls is working outside the system versus in the system. I don’t think that’s as effective.”

But he also said the industry needs to evolve and be more responsive to what consumers want.

“We have an attitude of resistance to change, and an attitude that they are our cattle and people should buy them because we are making the right decisions,” said Campbell.

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for the Glacier FarmMedia publication, the Alberta Farmer Express, since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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