The recent move by the restaurant chain Earls to use only meat from a producer who has been Certified Humane is generating considerable discussion.
Earls announced the move last week and said it was going to use beef from U.S. suppliers who could meet its criteria.
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But industry watchers and players are raising questions, suggesting the move is a marketing strategy aimed at winning the hearts of customers with concerns about how animals are treated.
The label that Earls is seeking, Certified Humane, comes from a non-profit organization in the U.S. called Humane Farm Animal Care. That group provides stringent protocols for cattle ranchers.
They touch on such things as the availability of food and water, conditions of pens, air quality and the transportation of the animals.
People in the industry, like feed-lot owner Brad Wildeman, from Pound-Maker Agventures in Lanigan, Sask., have some issues with the Certified Humane label.
"It's inferring that this beef is somewhat better or safer when there's really no empirical evidence to support that," Wildeman said. "It's not lying of course, it's just misleading."
Wildeman also pointed out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has strict regulations on the transportation of animals and slaughtering.
Wildeman said just because Canadian ranchers don't have a Certified Humane label on products doesn't mean their animals are being treating inhumanely.
Market trends at play, professor says
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor from the Food Institute at the University of Guelph, has looked at the debate concerning certified and non-certified beef and suspects the difference is mostly related to marketing to a younger generation.
"In 2016, for the first time in history, millennials actually outnumber boomers," Charlebois said. "That's why companies like Earls and A&W are slowly shifting their procurement strategies."
Charlebois said the strategy is a response to a demand from consumers.
"More people are asking questions," he said. "That's why [restaurants] are trying to make their supply chain transparent, by actually going with a U.S. beef which is humane-certified."
He also said that restaurants using that strategy may find more success in the U.S. where the market is so large that being distinctive, in some way, could help their sales.
Charlebois said the Certified Humane label could be viewed as offering a unique product among restaurants.
He added that while the trend to, to provide a Certified Humane label on food, may come to Canada, it may not catch on as it has in the U.S.
Charlebois said businesses south of the border have such a huge industry that niche markets can carve out a small percentage of consumers and be successful. The same opportunities don't exist in Canada.
"I'd say the economics in Canada are pretty weak in developing niche markets," he said. "That's why cattle producers haven't seen the benefit or economic benefit of developing different kinds of products."