Michael Von Massow is an associate professor at University at Guelph who researches animal welfare and consumer perceptions.
Earls Restaurants' recent announcement that they are moving to entirely "certified humane" beef sourcing has generated a firestorm of criticism from the Alberta beef industry. Social media is abuzz with talk of boycotts. The truth, however, is that this will be a smart business move that will result in growth.
Animal welfare is becoming a more important consideration for Canadian consumers. In a recent survey as part of our research, almost two-thirds of respondents said that animal welfare is an important consideration in their choice of restaurant, up from about 25 per cent just two years ago.
While the average Canadian has little idea of the details of food production, they are concerned about how that food is produced. Restaurants don't have the luxury of offering a wide range of choice like retailers do. They need to make choices that reflect the preferences of the majority of their consumers. These are not decisions taken lightly but I expect that, despite the vocal opposition, this will be positive for Earls and that others will follow.
But critics need to be careful not to simply shoot the messenger. Companies are simply responding to what consumers are asking for.
This is a complex issue. Earls has not simply chosen American beef over Alberta beef. There is not enough of the type of beef Earls wants to serve available in Canada. They've said they tried to find it.
Given logistics, the Canadian dollar, and this predictable response from producers, any company would prefer to source product here in Canada. What they are saying is that animal welfare is more important to customers than a "produced in Canada" label. That's not to say they don't care about Canadian production. It just means they think other attributes are more important. They are simply shifting based on the consumer's preference.
There are other factors that have guided Earls in their decision: They have chosen beef without added hormones (like A&W has – and profited from). Beef is often produced with a small dose of added synthetic hormone, which speeds growth. There is no residual hormone in the beef and use of hormones reduces cost and feed intake (which reduces the environmental footprint). We've eaten this beef safely for many years. That said, it makes many consumers uncomfortable.
We can talk all we want about the safety and the science, but if we can't convince consumers, producers must find other markets or their change practices. The fact that some producers are selling beef raised without supplemental hormones suggests that the premium on the price it fetches more than covers the higher production costs.
With the advent of the Internet, consumers have so much hyperbole and conflicting information at their fingertips that discerning fact from fiction can be challenging. Add the emotional connection to animals and food, along with some YouTube videos showing inhumane animal handling practices, it should not be surprising that consumers reach for simple heuristics (drug-free, cage free) to help with their purchase decisions. Every effort should be made to communicate the science. But at the end of the day, the choice is the customer's to make. Canadian businesses are free to choose which marketing segments they want to pursue; which consumer needs they can best uniquely meet, and which suppliers to deal with.
If that supply isn't readily available in Canada at the current time, perhaps it will be in the future. That is the law of supply and demand.
I will continue to eat high-quality Canadian beef. I will also continue to eat at Earls when I get the chance, as I expect many Canadians will.
Consumers may indeed have an irrational attitude about some aspects of food. They have every right to. We can and should try to explain the science to them. If we're successful that's great. If not, we have a choice, give them what they want or deal with other markets.