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Dylan Biggs tends to his cattle on his ranch near Hanna, Alta., on Thursday. Mr. Biggs raises cattle that are certified by Animal Welfare Approved, one of many ethical certificates reflecting a lack of uniformity in the system.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Colleen Biggs and her husband, Dylan, own an award-winning livestock operation in Alberta. TK Ranch produces beef without antibiotics, drugs, added hormones, animal by-products and chemical insecticides. The Biggs are even building their own abattoir to further ensure their black and red Angus cattle are treated well.

Their ranch has earned the Animal Welfare Approved seal indicating it produces ethical meat. It is regularly audited to make sure it meets AWA's standards, such as how many animals are permitted on a piece of pasture and how they are treated at the slaughterhouse.

TK Ranch would appear to sell the type of beef that Earls Restaurants Ltd. wants to serve. But Earls, a proudly Canadian chain of upscale casual eateries, will not serve steaks or burgers cut from cattle raised on TK Ranch and others like it in the Prairies. Earls has aligned itself with a competing program for certifying ethical meat – the Humane Farm Animal Care's Certified Humane program.

This week's decision to serve only Certified Humane beef sparked backlash in Canada, with some calling for a boycott of the chain. But Earls' strategy doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of TK Ranch's beef and processing practices. It reflects the lack of a uniform system for awarding ethical certificates.

There are many certification programs out there but in the end there are not major differences between them. Brandy Street, the manager of the British Columbia SPCA's certification program, said the ethical labelling business is getting crowded. But, at the same time, standards overlap.

"I definitely think the programs are similar," Ms. Street said about the SPCA and Certified Humane's guidelines.

"There are some competing certifications out there and it is making it so that no one certification comes out as more dominant."

Ms. Biggs says "there are lot of cattle producers in Alberta that would meet the Certified Humane standard. It is just that they haven't gone through the process of the certification system."

She believes AWA's requirements exceed Certified Humane's guidelines, both of which cover slaughter facilities. Earls, however, believes Certified Humane is the best out there for its 59 Canadian outlets and seven American joints.

"There are quite a few different associations that do certified humane programs of some kind," Cate Simpson, a spokeswoman for Earls, said in an interview.

"We looked for the certification that had the highest level of standards and had the highest level of auditing standards."

Earls tried to make it work in Alberta, right up until three weeks ago. There are only two Certified Humane processing plants in Canada and the United States – one in Alberta, the other in Kansas, Ms. Simpson said. Earls tried to run about seven restaurants in Alberta serving just beef out of the province's Certified Humane plant, but the experiment failed. It went two weeks without any Certified Humane Alberta beef because Earls' demand outstripped supply. (Earls made up for the shortage by serving beef that did not meet its new standard).

Steaks and burgers are the best-selling items on Earls' menu, she said. The company goes through about 910,000 kilograms of beef a year.

Alberta "has some of the best beef in the world," Ms. Simpson said, but most of it ends up in grocery stores and shipped south of the border. Little is left over for restaurants like Earls. A couple of years ago, the restaurant chain let its Alberta suppliers know the switch to the Certified Humane certification program was coming and that it would need more of that type of meat.

"Hopefully they'll increase production to the point that we will be able to turn around and bring our supply back to Alberta," Ms. Simpson said. "That's what we really hope is going to happen."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, in Washington attempting to refashion the province's Tory-era reputation as a source of cheap but dirty oil into that of a international green leader, rejected Earls' decision to use only Certified Humane beef at the expense of Alberta producers. "Alberta beef is the best beef in the world," she said. "This issue here is the certification process and clarifying that set of rules and so we're hopeful there's some progress made on that relatively soon."

Meanwhile, TK Ranch, located about 270 kilometres northeast of Calgary, has about 385 pregnant cattle among its herd of about 1,000. The Biggs hope fellow ranchers will join the "ethical meat"movement that they are part of.

"The industry is starting to sit up and become aware of consumer concerns around animal welfare," Ms. Biggs said. "Even this Earls business has made industry go: 'Well, wait a minute, just because they are saying they can't find a supply of Certified Humane meat in Alberta or Western Canada doesn't mean that our producers aren't doing a good job.'"

With a report from Paul Koring in Washington

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