Canadian ranchers are criticizing fast-food chain A&W's new campaign that promises healthier burgers to customers. 

In September, A&W launched a series of "Better Beef" TV commercials and a website that features three of the ranches it buys from. 

"We were hoping that we'd be able to be able to deliver on the product that most of our customers were asking about, which is beef without any added hormones or steroids," said Susan Senecal, chief marketing officer of A&W Food Services of Canada.

Bern Kotelko

Bern Kotelko's ranch near Vegreville, Alta., is featured on A&W's "Better Beef" campaign website, touting his farm's elimination of hormones and steroids in their cattle. (A&W Canada)

​Senecal said A&W will also buy from producers who use antibiotics only for therapeutic purposes, and whose animals are free of additives and preservatives.

Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers, admitted there is some consumer demand for beef with fewer hormones and no steroids. However, he says calling it "better" is misleading because the beef hormones ranchers usually use are miniscule and found to be safe to human health.

The use of hormones also has environmental benefits, because more cattle can be raised on less land, Smith said.

"We don't think it's better beef. We think it's beef from cattle that are raised differently than the vast majority of cattle in Canada and the United States," Smith told CBC News.

Ranchers disapprove of move to foreign beef

Smith is also concerned that A&W is buying beef from producers in Montana and Australia to meet demand. 

"We're disappointed that a large Canadian food-service chain would launch a marketing campaign that has them serving significant amounts of imported beef to Canadians."

While Smith agrees with A&W's claim that there are not enough producers in Canada to meet the needs of the chain, which has more than 750 locations across the country, he says ranchers could have adjusted their procedures had the chain worked with them earlier.

"Producers will produce to serve market needs. And if there is a demand for beef from cattle who are raised this way, they would meet that demand."

Senecal pointed out that A&W already buys from a Canadian ranch — Spring Creek Ranch near Vegreville, Alta., — and that more Canadian suppliers will likely be added in the future.

"It's a market in Canada that's new and growing ... so, we're working with ranchers and with producers to be able to increase that supply and grow our share of beef that we buy from Canada," Senecal said.

In the short term, A&W's move will hurt cattle producers because processing plants, which the fast-food chain likely used to buy from, will order fewer cattle, while in the long-term, consumers could feel the pinch, Smith said.

"It's taking a sizable buyer out of our market. And that will have impact on prices down the road."

He said the national representative for his group — the Canadian Cattlemen's Association — made its concerns known to A&W prior to the launch of the campaign. But both groups have chosen not to be too "loud" about their criticism because they still want to work with the chain.

With files from Dalia Thamin