The chair of the Alberta Beef Producers says looking back, the Earls' controversy appears to have been a good thing for cattle ranchers.

"Oh I think it's going to be a huge win for the industry," Bob Lowe said.

Last month, Earls announced it was dropping Alberta beef from its menu in favour of U.S. certified humane beef, but Lowe says the restaurant chain quickly learned which side of the table consumers stood on.

earls

Last month, Earls announced it was dropping Alberta beef from its menu in favour of U.S. certified humane beef. (Neil Herland/CBC)

"The restaurants, in Alberta at least, said, 'Woah, you've got to change this, we're losing customers,' and people just said, 'No, I'm not going to support a restaurant that doesn't support us."

A week later, Earls reversed its decision and said it will work with local ranchers to build a supply of Alberta beef that meets its criteria for humanely produced meat.

But it will continue to get most of its beef from its U.S supplier while the chain begins to supplement the supply from Canadian ranchers.

Brews new relationships

In the meantime, Earls reached out to another group, called the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, as did five other restaurant chains hoping to bypass a similar fallout with their customers.

"It's exactly what we're hoping for because what we're looking for is to be able to inform our consumer, and in this case it's the retailers and the restaurants who are buying and purchasing our meat products from our processors," said the chair of the group.

"They had no idea how to connect to our industry to find out really, truly what was here and what was available and this roundtable is offering them that platform to be able to do just this," Cherie Copithorne-Barnes said. But she won't name the restaurants just yet.

Sweetened sales?

The roundtable was an idea initiated by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and fast-food icon McDonald's was one of the first organizations to join.

The idea was to help develop a list of criteria that would define a new label called Sustainable Beef.

The multi-stakeholder group is also made up of beef processors and retailers, as well as NGO's like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Copithorne-Barnes says the Canadian industry is already doing a lot of these sustainable practices, but it needs to come up with a way to prove it to the consumer.

"There's got to be something tangible that people can see and feel, so to speak ... making sure that you can measure that we are not destroying the environment for example, and we can prove why we're not, and the only way we can do that is through some form of scientific metrics."   

And in the end, Copithorne-Barnes says, these restaurant chains will help the beef industry meet the needs of consumers, and hopefully sell more product.

Lessons learned

Restaurants Canada, a national not-for-profit association representing Canada's restaurant and food service industry, believes the showdown between Earls and the beef industry shows the delicate balancing act restaurateurs are subject to, in both meeting consumer demand and trying to buy local whenever possible.

"I think these restaurant chains getting together to work with the Alberta beef industry is a great sign ... where we can listen to our consumers needs and buy local," says vice president Mark von Schellwitz.

One marketing expert also says when companies are trying to attract new customers and differentiate themselves, they can't forget about their loyal base.

And in this case, it was shown, many are loyal to their Alberta beef, an assistant marketing professor at University of Calgary said.

"Even when companies have research that says this is the way to go, you have to be very careful," Debi Andrus said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated it was McDonald's that initiated the idea of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. It was the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association that came up with the idea and McDonald's was one of the first organizations to join.
    May 29, 2016 8:47 PM MT