The great divide: Earls controversy has larger implications for beef industry

A move to woo customers with ‘certified humane’ beef ignited a firestorm — and highlighted the gap between producers and consumers

Adrienne Ivey (left) says Earls’ decision to source Certified Humane beef was all about marketing and while Ben Campbell (right) didn’t like the decision either, he also says beef producers need to “shift our paradigm.”
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The decision by Earls Restaurants to stop using Canadian beef and move to American “certified humane” proved short-lived, but the issue is much bigger than one restaurant’s choice of suppliers.

Earls quickly reversed the decision that sent waves of displeasure through the beef industry. But the controversy has highlighted both consumers’ lack of knowledge about beef production and the wide divide between producers and consumers

It’s also raised questions whether the Canadian beef industry is able to keep up with a rapidly changing consumer landscape.

It started innocently enough.

On April 27, Earls Restaurants Ltd. tweeted, “This is really big. Earls is the first chain in North America to source beef from Certified Humane farms in all its restaurants.” In a video linked to the tweet, Mo Jessa, president of the Vancouver-based restaurant chain, announced the change and said, “I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to say that.”

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. The hashtag #BoycottEarls was soon trending on Twitter.

On May 4, Jessa said his company “made a mistake” and would work to find Alberta beef suppliers.

But the initial decision stung.

“When a Canadian-based company like Earls that has been supportive of the Canadian industry in the past makes a decision like this, it’s just disappointing. Heart-wrenching even,” said rancher Adrienne Ivey, who raises cow/calf pairs, backgrounds, and finishes cattle near Ituna, Sask.

While waiting for a cow to calve, Ivey wrote a passionate post about the issue on her blog viewfromtheranchporch.com explaining her reaction and her take on Humane Animal Care, the American non-profit that created the Certified Humane program.

Earls’ decision wasn’t about how cattle are treated, Ivey said in an interview.

“It’s more of a marketing thing,” she said. “I was amazed at how much of it was about marketing and how little of it was about the animals. All of the reasons (on the non-profit’s website) why producers should go this route were about marketing and sales.”

“When a Canadian-based company like Earls that has been supportive of the Canadian industry in the past makes a decision like this, it’s just disappointing. Heart-wrenching, even.” – Adrienne Ivey
“When a Canadian-based company like Earls that has been supportive of the Canadian industry in the past makes a decision like this, it’s just disappointing. Heart-wrenching, even.” – Adrienne Ivey photo: Supplied

Not getting credit

But while Humane Animal Care’s website urges consumers to “take action for farm animals today” by only buying meat, dairy, and eggs it certifies, it has detailed standards and farms are also audited by third-party inspectors. For beef cattle, those standards run to 30 pages and were developed by more than two dozen veterinarians, professors, and other animal welfare experts including Temple Grandin and Ed Pajor, a renowned professor of animal welfare in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary.

But Earls’ enthusiasm for Certified Humane beef may unfairly tarnish consumer perception of Canadian beef ranchers, Pajor said in a CBC radio interview.

The Canadian beef sector has a new national code of practice, is developing a feedlot assessment program, and the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef is creating guidelines for sustainable beef, he noted. Moreover, unlike the U.S., Canada also has mandatory traceability.

“I think Alberta producers don’t really get the credit they deserve for the programs they are developing and moving forward with,” Pajor said.

But, he added, the Canadian beef sector has also been slower to develop certification standards. (Certified Humane finalized its standards more than two years ago.)

Still, 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 and perhaps help them find what they are looking for,” Canadian Cattlemen’s Association general manager Rob McNabb said prior to the May 4 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.

“There was (and is) simply not enough Certified Humane, antibiotic, steroid-free beef in Alberta to meet the volume we use and those we tried were unable to consistently meet our supply needs, not even a portion of it,” Earls spokeswoman Cate Simpson said in an email prior to the May 4 turnaround.

In that email, she described the move to Certified Humane as “really good news for animal welfare.”

“It’s everyone’s job to look after the welfare of animals and the food we eat,” she wrote.

But the storyline is a muddled one.

For example, while Simpson insisted her company only wants beef “raised without antibiotics, steroids or growth hormones,” cattle in the Certified Humane program can be given antibiotics when ill — just not as growth promotants. And proponents of the Verified Beef Program, the national industry led on-farm food safety program, also say most of the key components are the same in both programs.

Responding to consumers

But the larger issue is about the need for change in the beef industry, said Sylvain Charlebois, a leading expert on the Canadian food industry and dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University.

Earls is catering to people, especially the younger generation, who are concerned about how their food is raised, Charlebois told CBC.

“In 2016, for the first time in history, millennials actually outnumber boomers,” he said. “That’s why Earls and A&W are slowly shifting their procurement strategies. More people are asking questions.”

The situation is challenging even for someone like Ben Campbell, a third-generation cow-calf producer from Black Diamond 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 they are 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.

“We need to shift our paradigm to understand that they’re not our cows and we are producing animals and food on behalf of our customer.

“We have to produce them to the standards they want them. We have to accept that it’s not just us in the chain.”

And that’s an achievable goal, he said.

“Every industry has to evolve and get better and there’s no way that anyone can say our industry can’t get better. There’s always room for improvement.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer 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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