Early May was an interesting time, particularly with respect to the pride of the Canadian Beef Industry. I am referring to industry reaction to the announcement by the Earls Restaurant chain to not source Canadian beef for its menu, but rather to look to American beef raised under the banner of “Certified Humane.” Predictably, this announcement resulted in a rallying cry across the country highlighting the virtues of Canadian beef and our production practices and calls for a boycott of the restaurant chain. To the credit of those who raised their voices, the decision was reversed.
While many may consider this a victory, the question I pose in this article is did we win the war or just the battle? I suggest that we won the battle, and that it is just a matter of time before another Earls or A&W comes along and questions through its marketing practices how Canadian beef producers conduct business. The elephant in the room is how will beef producers react the next time and the time after that, particularly if the next company is a really big player like Walmart or McDonald’s?
To look at this issue more closely, let’s look at the decision by Earls’ executives. While not privy to corporate thinking, it appears to me that this business saw an opportunity to fill a niche that it felt consumers were demanding, specifically for beef that is certified humane. Emphasis on the word certified! They were right in stating that they would have to look long and hard in Canada to find a consistent source of certified humanely produced beef. Not to say we do not humanely treat our animals; anyone who knows anything about the industry knows that such a claim would be totally removed from the truth! Unfortunately most consumers are not as well tied into agricultural practices and increasingly are looking for more than verbal assurances that their food is safe, that animals are treated humanely and raised in an environmentally sustainable manner!
When I look at the website of the American company that Earls’ beef was to be sourced from, it offers a high-quality product that among its long list of brand requirements is a statement on humane treatment of animals. This company goes the additional step of having its production practices certified under standards of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC,) which is a non-profit charity. This organization has created a long list of standards that producers must adhere to in order to quality for certification. While one may not agree with everything listed, for the most part they reflect the common-sense values that the vast majority of Canadian beef producers uses when raising beef cattle and reflect many of the values that leaders of various beef organizations are trying to instil in Canada.
Consider for example the Canadian Code of Practice for Care and Handling of Beef Cattle released in 2013 through the National Farm Animal Care Council and the Verified Beef Production Program offered across the country through various provincial and national cattle organizations. Both lay out guiding principles for producing beef in a safe and humane fashion. They cover virtually the same areas of animal care and production that the American HFAC standards cover. The difference is that those American producers enrolled under HFAC are “certified,” while in Canada participation to a large extent is voluntary. Producers in VBP are verified and audited, however, the number of participating producers at this point is limited and sourcing a consistent supply of beef under this program from birth to slaughter would be challenging.
So how big an issue are we facing? Are calls for beef to be raised in a humane, environmentally sustainable manner a passing fad or the new reality? Will we see increasing demand by consumers (backed up through their spending practices) for certified food production practices? My gut feeling is that we are at just at the tip of the iceberg in this regard and that these programs will become increasingly prevalent with time. Accepting the status quo with regards to food production will no longer cut it with a large segment of society, particularly young people.
That is why initiatives such as the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef are so important to the future of this industry. This multi-stakeholder initiative is working to develop a framework that will allow all players in the beef value chain (i.e. producers, processors, retailers) to produce and source beef that is verified as “sustainable.” Not only will this initiative define sustainable beef production with input from all stakeholders, it will develop for each sector of industry, sustainability production indicators that can be audited and verified. This vision which is available on the roundtable’s website is to have Canadian beef recognized globally as economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible. Attaining this vision will require widespread industry buy-in! The question is — are you up for the challenge?
Of course the alternative the next time a major chain questions how Canadian beef is produced is to respond, “I am not eating there anymore!” However, in the big picture, I am not sure such a response does much to help the future of the industry.