This photo illustration shows how the two billboards on Commonwealth Avenue in Mount Pearl looked on June 17, and again on June 18. The Petroforma sign on the top right was removed after a franchise owner with Tim Hortons complained. (Submitted)

Canada's largest coffee-and-doughnut chain has won a billboard battle with a St. John's laboratory that promotes food safety. 

Two billboards with similar imagery — but promoting completely different messages about food — were placed side-by-side on Commonwealth Avenue in Mount Pearl this week.

On the left was a sign promoting Tim Hortons' Canadian Back Bacon Breakfast Sandwich, with an oversized photo of the product.

On the right was a billboard sponsored by Petroforma Laboratories, as part of its campaign to promote food safety, with a similar image of a burger. 

The big difference? The message on the Petroforma billboard was "You can't taste bacteria," and the sign featured two "bacteria" peaking out from behind the burger.

That's what motorists saw as as they drove past on Wednesday, June 17. But by Thursday morning, the Petroforma sign was gone and replaced with a Lasik MD Vision billboard.

The company that rents out the space, E.C. Boone Ltd., admitted Thursday that it made a mistake by placing the two signs next to one another.

A company official, Nathan Anthony, said E.C. Boone received a complaint from a Tim Hortons franchise owner, and quickly removed the Petroforma sign.

Petroforma CEO Mike Hanrahan was not impressed, telling CBC Radio's On The Go he was offended by E.C. Boone's response.

Hoped for a more co-operative approach

Hanrahan said it was a case of a large company flexing its muscle, at the expense of a local laboratory trying to raise awareness about the dangers that can be found in kitchens, including food pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.

"I was rather offended, and remain offended," Hanrahan said, adding he was "told" his sign was coming down.

Hanrahan understands why the people at Tim Hortons would have concerns, but he wonders why they couldn't have taken a more co-operative approach, and why E.C. Boone couldn't have facilitated a consultative outcome.

"If Tim Hortons is a more important customer to E.C. Boone than Petroforma Laboratories is, then E.C. Boone could have easily made concessions and said to them, 'Hey, Petroforma is only around for three more weeks. We'll give you 10 months of free signage in another location. Sorry about this.'"

Hanrahan said the company has five other signs in the region, and he's worried that another food company with operations nearby might put similar pressure on E.C. Boone.

'I was rather offended, and remain offended' - Petroforma CEO Mike Hanrahan

"If we're seeing opposition eight weeks into a multi-year campaign, I'm weary of the road we have ahead," he said.

Petroforma was established in 2008 and Hanrahan describes it as the largest commercial laboratory in the province.

The lab does testing for industries such as oil and gas, mining and forestry, but its largest business line is food pathology and microbiology.

Hanrahan commended Service NL for its inspection program of food establishments, but said those inspections are limited to visual searches for infractions.

"We all know that bacteria are completely invisible and the only way to test them is to do swab and lab analysis. So we're just trying to promote that ... maybe just take that extra low-cost degree of due diligence to make sure that our children and elderly – the most vulnerable – from a health perspective, are eating safe food."

E.C. Boone, meanwhile, said Petroforma was offered a sign in another location with higher traffic volumes.

With files from Maggie Gillis