By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
NEEPAWA, Man. — Today, farmers are at the front lines of a battle, in a war they didn’t start. As Canadians become more removed from where their food comes from, food production methods are increasingly being used as a tool by companies looking for any edge they can find in a crowded and competitive market. Recently, Canadian cattle producers have found themselves in the crosshairs of such marketing campaigns.
Since 2013, the fast-food chain A&W has been promoting their “beef guarantee.” It essentially includes two components; that beef cattle are only given antibiotics when medically necessary and that they are raised without any added hormones or steroids and with a commitment to sustainable production.
In Canada, six hormones have been approved for use in beef cattle since the 1960s and they are used to help the animals more efficiently convert feed into weight gain. Their use isn’t prevalent and research done by the Western Beef Development Centre found that about one-third of Canadian cow-calf operations use hormone implants on a regular basis. While many foods, including beef, contain natural hormones, in Canada, there is a zero tolerance for residues of synthetic hormones in meat.
When the beef guarantee was first announced, Canadian producers were on the offensive, eager to counter the implication that Canadian beef wasn’t safe enough. The issue came to a head again this year. On August 23, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall tweeted that burgers made of 100 percent Canadian beef were available at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Harvey’s, but not yet at A&W. A&W responded on September 5, saying that while they try to source as much Canadian beef as possible, “There simply isn’t enough that matches our standards.” Though A&W won’t confirm how much Canadian beef they use, industry speculation puts the amount somewhere between 5 and 20 percent. The rest comes from the United States and Australia.
Regardless of your feelings towards the use of hormone implants in cattle, finding a reliable and guaranteed supply of Canadian cattle raised without their use is a relatively easy process. There are 951 beef cattle producers registered with the Verified Beef or Verified Beef Plus programs, which through an audited trail, allow registered producers to prove that they adhere to the highest standards and best practices with respect to food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship. This traceability can follow an animal from farm to fork. As more producers are looking at ways of adding value to their product, more of them are participating in programs like Verified Beef.
While numbers are at a historic low, there are still almost 12 million beef cattle in Canada. It’s hard to believe that A&W can’t find enough Canadian beef, raised without hormones or steroids and only treated when they are sick, to make some hamburgers for their 850 Canadian locations.
But this type of marketing resonates with consumers. While the initiative might be bad for the Canadian cattle industry, the beef guarantee has been successful for the restaurant chain. The company’s share price has risen from about $20 per share in 2013, to the $30 per share range in 2017, with some peaks into the $40 per share range.
Consumers can and should make their own decisions about the food they eat, but they should base them on facts, not marketing tactics. Without first-hand knowledge of how food transforms from raw inputs into finished meals, Canadians are increasingly being swayed by marketing constructed to look like science. When that’s the case, the winners are neither the consumer, nor the farmer.