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Too far out?

Free Market Reflections from the June 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Too far out?

Recently Canadian cattlemen were upset because a Canadian-based chain, Earls, decided to serve only “Certified Humane” beef, currently only available from one source — Creekstone Farms in Kansas, U.S.

Ah, the complexities of producing and marketing food today. I’m sure Canadian cattlemen and processors were quite taken aback that a Canadian restaurant chain would shut them out of the supplier chain. It is also a bit surprising that it is happening in a smaller country, where one might expect businessmen to be more likely to stick together and protect each other. No one can accuse Earls of too much “nationalism,” a term the politically correct have turned into a “diversity” offence.

In this PC age, businesses are sometimes quick to overreact to consumer fads/trends, thinking they need to stay ahead of trends. On the other hand, the fact that only one supplier in the two countries feeding nearly all the world’s grain-fed cattle could supply something would tell most businesses they were getting ahead of their supply lines. Judging by their menu prices, they could also be getting ahead of their average customer’s devotion to a fad/trend, especially if based on preconceived notions and inaccurate information.

Prudent business planning would suggest that having only one supplier for any business is risky. In the meat business, a processor is always just one inspection problem, one process problem from being shut down for hours or days. It is an inherent risk.

But companies consider different risks differently. I’ll admit I was very surprised that some of the biggest food companies in the U.S. are cutting and running ahead of Vermont’s GMO labelling law (to take effect in July). I really thought that with Vermont’s minuscule population of roughly 625,000, the big food companies would figure, “What, reconfigure our entire product line and get new label approvals for 1/1,000th of the population?”… and just refuse to ship to Vermont.

Yet the biggest corporations have public relations departments telling them that if they are not politically correct — aren’t green enough, don’t recycle, don’t acknowledge so-called climate change and aren’t sustainable enough, they might have protesters outside their gates and social media in an uproar. Their sensitivity level is very high.

Meanwhile, while kowtowing to politically correct overreaction, how much accurate information from credible sources is being provided to those customers who really want to know? Adele Douglass, who runs the group providing the “Certified Humane” standards, was raised in New York City and nothing in her resumé indicates any real experience in production agriculture.

This is the difficulty all of agriculture has with its customers: many of them think of animals in terms of what’s sitting on the couch with them watching TV, a setting far removed from animal agriculture. They have difficulty imagining the sensitivity level or relative intelligence level of chickens, for example. They cannot easily understand how cattle can thrive outside in conditions humans can only handle with proper clothes and protection. And the misinformation about beef cattle, that spend 75-80 per cent of their life outside, eating grass, which the activists and the somewhat emotional feel is essential, somehow gets flipped to, “What, you leave them outside in the winter?” What happened to free to roam and fresh air?

I’m also concerned with the implication that the terminology “humane” is being lumped in with the use of antibiotics or growth promotants. Humane has historically meant how animals are treated, as regard to food, shelter, handling and, in the case of food animals, slaughter. I see nothing germane to humane when it comes to growth promotants. As for antibiotics, is it humane to let an animal suffer or humane to provide proper medical care? Why create a conundrum wherein the temptation is to see if the animal gets well on its own, rather than treat it and immediately forgo the substantial premium for animals that are never treated?

As for slaughter, there have been humane slaughter laws for many decades. Additionally, there are likely no major packers in either country that have not had Temple Grandin in to evaluate their facilities and recommend improvements in the handling and harvesting of the animals.

Of course, Earls’ management has since announced that it would be happy to buy Canadian beef as long as it can meet the same standards of the Creekstone brand and be certified humane. The Canadian industry contends it already meets these standards, and is in the process of creating programs to certify it. As I write this, however, Earls’ menu still states: “Our juicy, all-natural 100% Creekstone Farms Black Angus hand formed beef burgers are free of antibiotics with no added hormones.”

Note, it doesn’t say the livestock were raised without the use of antibiotics and growth-promoting natural hormones. It says the burgers are free of antibiotics with no added hormones. The same statement can be made for virtually every burger produced in Canada and the U.S. by the time an animal is harvested. The implication, however, is that other beef burgers are laced with hormones or antibiotics. Now we even have DNA research to document the “free” part for all beef.

The bottom line: the industry has a lot of educational work to do so consumers understand the real truth.

About the author


Steve Dittmer is the CEO of Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, a non-profit group promoting free market principles throughout the food chain. He can be reached at [email protected]



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