Tension was palpable in the room full of Manitoba beef producers as the representative from A&W restaurants communicated the reasoning behind the company’s ‘Better Beef’ campaign.
“In recent years the beef industry has been inundated with bad-news stories and we find consumers reluctant to choose beef,” said Trish Sahlstrom, vice-president of purchasing and distribution for A&W restaurants. “When asked what was important when choosing beef, the top three consumer responses were no hormones, no steroids and no antibiotics.”
Sahlstrom participated in a panel discussion at this year’s Manitoba Beef Producers annual general meeting and received some tough questions from concerned producers.
“I would hope this is a matter of being misinformed and that you are not knowingly putting the entire industry at risk for financial gain,” said Cliff Graydon, a beef producer and MLA for Emerson. “I feel that as a corporate citizen you should educate consumers that not everything is bad for them.”
In September of 2013, A&W launched its ‘Better Beef’ campaign, which promised its consumers that the beef served would have no hormones or steroids, and antibiotics would be administered for therapeutic use only.
A&W is the second-largest burger chain in Canada, and at the time of the campaign launch, it had 790 restaurants country-wide.
Following the shift, the burger company received immediate backlash from the country’s ranchers and producer groups over the campaign slogan, who thought it to be misleading, inaccurate and a threat to the industry. The ‘Better Beef’ slogan was thought to imply that beef raised in other ways is inferior.
“Within a short time of our launch, we received quite a bit of feedback from the beef industry — ‘don’t call it better beef, don’t put our product down.’ But, there was never any intention that this was comparative, we were using consumer language,” said Sahlstrom.
Since the campaign’s launch the company has cut back on the use of the ‘Better Beef’ slogan. But tension continues to run high between producers and the fast-food giant.
More estrogen in plants
“Anything without a hormone is not alive and cannot live. Hormone levels in beef and milk are considerably lower than in some plant-based foods,” said Graydon.
He provided an example that four ounces of cabbage have 27,000 nanograms of estrogen, whereas four ounces of raw steak from an animal that has had implants contain 1.6 nanograms and four ounces from a pregnant non-implanted heifer 1.5 nanograms.
“At no time has A&W taken any scientific side about hormones or steroids, we are simply responding to what consumers have told us they want,” said Sahlstrom.
A&W didn’t discuss the change in advance with the country’s producers, who argue that the company could have handled the situation better and given the industry a heads up and allowing producers the option to change their practices.
“One of my concerns is that when you talked to the consumers you may have wanted to talk to some of the producers as well. We understand consumers are changing but you also need to listen to where your product is coming from and understand that we as producers are also changing,” said Manitoba Beef Producers president Heinz Reimer.
Since the move to hormone- and steroid-free beef A&W has been purchasing product from the U.S. and Australia as well as Canada in order to meet demand.