Why the Certified Humane beef label might unfairly tarnish Canada cattle

What makes a piece of steak Certified Humane? Does the label controversially championed by Earls restaurants mean animals are treated better than the average Canadian cow? A professor who helped devise Certified Humane guidelines in the U.S. and labelling in Canada cuts through the controversy.

It's a mistake to assume Alberta beef meets lower standards despite Earls chain's recent decision, expert says

University of Calgary professor Ed Pajor has been involved in humane certification guidelines in the U.S. and labelling legislation in Canada. (University of Calgary)

The decision by Earls Restaurants to stop serving Alberta beef has fired up everyone from the cattle industry to consumers. It's a mistake, however, to assume Alberta ranchers are less humane in their practices, says one expert who's been involved with Certified Humane labelling in Canada and the U.S.

Ed Pajor, professor of animal welfare at the University of Calgary, shed some light on the topic in an interview with David Gray on CBC's Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

Pajor — who is internationally recognized for his research on the behaviour and welfare of food animals and rodeo animals — talked about how Alberta producers are taking steps towards humane certification labelling and branding.

He added the beef industry is a bit behind when it comes to the contentious Certified Humane label because it hasn't been part of Canadian culture until recently, but he said the industry would eventually catch up.

DG: This move by Earls makes consumers wonder if that Alberta beef is inhumane by definition. Is it?

EP: I think Alberta producers don't really get the credit they deserve for the programs they are developing and moving forward with. We have the National Farm Animal Care Council's Code of Practice, which is brand new. We have the Feedlot Assessment  Program, which is also an on-feedlot assessment that looks at the care the animals are receiving. There's also the Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. The issue here is that the programs in Canada are slightly behind in terms of timing. For example, the Feedlot Assessment Program that's coming out was only introduced in January.... So we're progressing along down the same line.

Canada's beef industry has been slower to adopt labelling practices, Pajor says. (Getty images)

DG: What makes a piece of steak Certified Humane?

EPCertified Humane is a third-party-verified label that is put forward by Humane Animal Care.They have their own set of standards. It's important to realize that Certified Humane is only one of numerous organizations in the United States that have third-party verification for animal care labels. Each one feels their standards are the best, feels that they offer a good service. I was involved with setting that up. I was also involved with setting up the scientific review for numerous beef codes here in Canada, as well.

DG: Earls has suggested it's offering something better than your average Alberta rancher is doing. Define "better."

EP: I don't think it's better, it's just a different program. For example, the certified program is a little more prescriptive in certain ways. For example, when it comes to antibiotic use, the certified program allows for antibiotic use for therapeutic reasons but not for being used as a growth promoter. That's very specifically identified. In the codes of practice in Alberta, that's not specifically identified.

DG: What do you make of the noise around this and the notion of a boycott of a restaurant that's made this decision?

EP: The implication suggests that Alberta beef is somehow not being raised humanely really hits people the wrong way. It doesn't seem to be accurate, and that's probably where that response comes from.

DG: Is it more expensive to raise humane beef?

EP: By being part of that program there is going to be a cost associated to the producers. This is a labelling program that is aimed at defining a niche market and giving producers access to those consumers who are willing to pay for something that's been certified.

DG: How is it that the Alberta cattle community have fallen behind from what others in the industry are doing?

EP: Back in the late '90s/early 2000s, the issue of labelling food based on animal welfare and animal care really wasn't part of the framework of the discussion in the production of food [in Canada]. We haven't had that type of entrepreneurship around labelling food that way. It hasn't been part of the culture here. So it's not that they're behind or that they haven't been looking after or treating animals humanely; it has to do with  having a program in place … and we are marching along in that direction.

Canadian guidelines around antibiotic use in animals is also different than in the U.S. (Marie-Noël Gingras, SPCA)

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener


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