There is more to the Earl’s story

Most readers will have heard about the Earl's Restaurants decision to buy their beef supplies from an American company.

Most readers will have heard about the Earl’s Restaurants decision to buy their beef supplies from an American company. Nothing wrong with that – they are a private company and are free to carry out their business as they see fit. It’s no different from an American food retailer buying from a Canadian beef supplier. The negative response to the Earl’s decision is curious; being the Canadian Sobeys/Safeway chain is an even larger customer of the same American company that licenses Earl’s with their marketing label and logo for their imported American beef. I expect most consumers are unaware of the extent of American beef imports – it averages about 300 million pounds per year. For logistical and market proximity reasons, most American beef goes into eastern Canada. Canada also imports boatloads of cheap Australian hamburger that is used by chains like A&W. So what’s the fuss all about?

I expect the marketing brain trust at Earl’s surveyed the latest food fads and figured that so-called ethically raised beef could be used as a competitive advantage. No surprise with that approach, most restaurants try to convince customers that they use the most exclusive ingredients and their competitors do not. It’s a never-ending marketing race; 30 years ago certified Angus beef was considered the epitome of meat quality and retailers rushed to acquire that label. That merchandising advantage has faded now that most restaurant chains feature Angus beef. A similar situation will soon happen with cage-free eggs, as most retailers and restaurants will be selling the same product. The problem with this type of marketing is that food promoters have to come up with ever more dubious types of merchandising schemes to keep up with competition battle. As a rule, most of these schemes are successful thanks to the bottomless gullibility of most consumers. Certainly beef is the classic example of that reality.

You have seen it all before with slogans like, “our beef is antibiotic-free”. Actually all beef sold is antibiotic-free by law and the CFIA does random testing for its presence in meat and milk. “Our beef is hormone-free” – actually no beef is hormone-free as it’s a natural element in all meat and vegetables. The added natural hormones used in production are so small as to be virtually undetectable. “Our beef is humanely raised” – any producer will tell you that if they don’t raise their animals humanely and stress-free they will lose money from diminished production. But as any marketer will tell you, none of those inconvenient truths matter, as perception is reality when it comes to the naïve consumer. So what can the beef industry do to counter this onslaught of perverted and twisted promotion? It’s simple – don’t fight them – just join them!

There are a dozen organic crop production certification entities in North America. Many have different certification criteria, but for an annual fee and royalties, they will provide producers, marketers and retailers with a logo and label assuring customers that they are buying an organic food product or that it has organic ingredients. The innocent consumer wants to believe that perception and is blissfully unaware that there are many certification groups selling labels. The label being used by Earl’s and Sobeys, the “Certified Humane Raised” label, is sold and licensed by a commercial American entity that has turned it into a money making marketing and merchandising scheme. They claim to be non-profit but a detailed financial statement is not published. They certify the entire meat production and marketing chain thereby harvesting lucrative fees, licenses and royalties at every stage.

There is an organization in Canada that sells humane production certification – the BC SPCA has a label program called “SPCA Certified.” Their criteria are similar to the American program, but it’s a modest effort and doesn’t have the marketing depth and sophistication of the US operation. I expect the American organization has professional marketers and managers that proactively market their program to retailers and restaurant chains. The BC SPCA program seems to be a secondary program to their main mandate. I would hope that there are some entrepreneurs, companies or organizations in Alberta that could recreate the American program and also promote the advantage of using certified meat produced in Canada. It needs to be done soon – MacDonald’s is sure to be plotting its role with ethically-raised beef, which, some say, are just code words for sustainably-raised beef. It’s all coming – the industry really needs to make a great leap forward to take back the issue.