If one were to take a poll of Canadian ranchers regarding their favourite restaurant, my guess is that A&W still would not rank particularly high. A lot of this animosity dates back to the natural beef campaign the company ran over the last five years. Many beef producers felt that this campaign, while extorting the virtues of beef raised without “hormones” or “antibiotics,” did so at the expense of conventional beef and resulted in mixed public messaging that counteracted the efforts of the industry to promote the quality and safety of Canadian beef.
If one looks at more recent commercial efforts, it seems to me that this company is taking a decidedly different tack to its business plan regarding the promotion of its beef products. Yes, they still use beef raised without hormonal implants or antibiotics, which is obviously a niche market that has struck a chord with a segment of Canadian consumers. However, no longer do we see commercials with subliminal messages that promote natural at the expense of conventional beef. Coincidence or not, this change in promotional tactics can be traced back three years or so to a partnership between A&W and the University of Saskatchewan, in which the company donated $5 million to the construction and research operations of the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE). As I wrote in my January 2018 column entitled “Sleeping with the Devil,” in making this donation, ownership and upper management were adamant that they wanted to work with all sectors of the beef chain, to the benefit of all.
Now if we fast-forward to the present, A&W has made good on its commitment to the University of Saskatchewan. Along with other funding partners, the construction of the LFCE is complete and research operations are in full swing. Perhaps more importantly, current campaigns promoting A&W beef products appear to be in harmony with beef industry messaging. Here I specifically refer to the grass-fed beef initiative that the company is running on television sets across the country, most importantly those in homes in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and other large urban centres.
At a time when the public has a heightened awareness regarding the source of their food, how it is produced and its environmental impact, these commercials feature two young ranchers from different parts of the country who obviously love the land and the cattle that they have been entrusted with, as well as the lifestyle that ranching offers them. Hopefully, the viewing public is getting the message that cattle, soil and grassland health are interdependent. In fact, in a matter of 60 seconds or so, these commercials introduce consumers to an age-old cycle involving the critical importance of grazing animals (i.e. bison and now cattle) to the health of Canada’s grasslands and the role that a healthy soil microbial community plays for both plant and animal diversity. It is a message that the public needs to understand and goes hand-in-hand with industry initiatives for promoting sustainable beef production practices.
Even better, these commercials are airing at the same time that McDonald’s is launching its campaign for sourcing beef that was raised in a sustainable manner. The McDonald’s commercials also feature young ranchers whose message is one of love and compassion for the animals they raise, respect for the land passed on from their grandparents, and the need to raise beef in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
McDonald’s and A&W are just two of a number of companies that are involved in the beef processing and retail sector that are members of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). This industry-led initiative is looking to transform the Canadian beef industry from one that expects the public to accept at face value that historical production practices are safe, humane and environmentally friendly to one that stands behind its product by following sustainability protocols for each sector of the industry. Producers enrolled in the program must meet sustainability standards in areas such as environmental stewardship, food safety, animal health and welfare, and community stewardship. Critical to public perception and acceptance is that producers enrolled in the program are certified by third-party auditors. Beef moving up the supply chain from these operations will carry the CRSB certification that it was raised and handled in a sustainable manner. While still relatively early in its development, there is no doubt that the foundational principles of the CRSB will direct future beef production in Canada. In fact, the beef that McDonald’s is marketing for its sustainable beef program is currently sourced through this program.
We are all aware of a line from a famous speech of Abraham Lincoln’s that goes something along the lines of “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The fact that we are seeing all segments of the industry working in concert to ensure the safety and quality of Canadian beef and to provide consistent public messaging is truly encouraging. So, perhaps its time to give credit where credit is due. The next time you are in town, why not try a Quarter Pounder with fries or a Teen Burger with some of those famous onion rings?