The Battle for Alberta Beef

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


In the wake of the decision by Earls to stop using Alberta beef in their restaurants, many in the cattle industry were expressing their anger at the chain; some even going so far as to advocate for an outright boycott. Earls initially said it would stop using Alberta beef and begin sole-sourcing direct from a Kansas supplier who was officially “certified humane.” This essentially means beef which is antibiotic and hormone free, and which follows a system for “humane” slaughter laid out by animal welfare advocate Dr. Temple Grandin.

Facing an enormous backlash from Canadian producers, Earls eventually acknowledged last week that it had “made a mistake” and reversed its decision. But by then the damage was done.

Chuck MacLean, founding partner of Porter & MacLean Livestock Management Inc. and former chairman of both Canada Beef and the Alberta Beef Producers, says while he is disappointed in this case by Earls, at the same time he is afraid the restaurant chain’s decision is  just the latest example of a growing ignorance in society about cattle production in general.

“This seems to be an undercurrent among the folks that live in the cities, or wherever, that beef, unless it is raised ‘naturally,’ and they use all these different, wonderful terms, ‘grass-fed’ or whatever…. At the end of the day, I am sitting here and saying we have some of the best food in the world.”

MacLean continues, “We also have a lot of choices. People can do whatever they like, but a lot of times they are doing it with a lot of misinformation.”

MacLean points to a growing antipathy toward hormone use in particular.

“In the livestock industry the hormones we use are either estrogen or testosterone. We did the math; all the things we use they can’t even measure (in the final product) to see if they have been used… The reason we use them is not because they make the calf grow any bigger or any fatter. What they do is they make them more efficient. It adds about another 15 per cent (to gain efficiency). Think of it kind of like being miles to the gallon on your car; that’s what these (hormone) implants do for the industry. This allows beef at the consumer level to be more reasonably priced.”

And yet, acknowledges MacLean, a pervasive anti-hormone campaign still exists in society and seems to be growing louder. And that campaign appears to be percolating even into major food companies. MacLean recalls a series of such conversations he had when he was still chair of Canada Beef. He gives an example.

“I have sat in a room with the vice president of Costco Foods and he would tell you, you need to increase your inventory, first of all, and then you need to quit using antibiotics and hormones. And I asked him how much are you going to pay us extra to do that? He said about 15 per cent. I said to him then you are not going to get one extra ounce of meat and we (producers and packers) probably won’t break even.”

MacLean says food companies and restaurants are increasingly worried about their social license, and in this case there is just no way to obscure the fact, at the end of the day, an animal has to die to supply the product to consumers.

“I don’t care what they are saying. There is no easy way to bring an animal’s life to an end. You can dress it up any you like, but it is what it is. I think most big meat packing plants have gone out of their way to lessen the stress for these animals.”

MacLean, who started his career in the meat packing industry and has continued to have close ties to it, says Earls desire for “certified humane” meat is basically an example of a company putting lipstick on a pig. He has studied other methods of slaughter such as halal and kosher, which some of the ideas for Dr. Temple Grandin’s “humane” slaughter seem to be coming from. He feels it’s nothing more than a bill of goods, a convenient sticker label to put over your conscience.

“To be quite honest I have been to plants where they do halal and kosher, and they don’t do what people are saying. Kosher and halal both have a blessing by either a rabbi or Muslim religious leader. They don’t blindfold them. They put them in a squeeze similar to what we have (at larger plants), lift the head way high in the air, and slit the throat. And then they stun them after the fact. Whereas with most plants we have here in Alberta they stun them first and then slit their throats.

“So to say that our plants, like the Cargill Foods and the JBSs, don’t (kill humanely); I have a really hard time with that. I would like to see this plant Earls is talking about, because I can take you to Better Beef in Toronto that does halal, and I wouldn’t trade ya.”

While, in MacLean’s opinion, Earls represents a good example of a restaurant chain being out of touch with beef producers’ reality on the ground, McDonald’s, a much bigger industry player and beef buyer, is a great example of a company with a much more sophisticated approach.

“They have gone to industry and they are working with the Sustainability Roundtable, and what they have tried to say is: What is the normal types of husbandry that we do, and is there anything that needs to be looked at or anything that should be addressed? They work in cooperation with industry to influence practices. But these guys (at Earls) just came out and said your product has got a problem because we can’t find enough in Canada… Look, these guys can do whatever they want. You have to keep your own business sustainable, is what I would say. If you keep the bankers happy then everybody is happy. But I really feel bad when they make it look like Canadian livestock people are not looking after their livestock when they say they can’t find ‘humane’ beef. That’s just not true.”