Skip to main content

Sylvain Charlebois is professor at the Food Institute, University of Guelph.

It hasn't been a good week for Canada's livestock industry. No matter what we read into the World Health Organization listing of bacon, ham and sausages as causes of cancer, it's hard to see how the economics of livestock won't be negatively affected over the longer term. Imagine – processed meats are now considered carcinogenic substances, alongside cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic. The WHO also considers red meats likely carcinogenic to humans.

While some industry pundits have been quick to register their concerns about the controversial move, this decision could become a significant threat to Canadian livestock, perhaps as much as climate change.

Most of the Western world, where culinary traditions have embraced animal proteins for thousands of years, may see this announcement as alarmist. Perhaps it is, but demand for processed and red meats has been declining for years. Higher prices, health concerns, animal welfare, sustainability – the arguments against meat consumption are piling up. The case for animal protein in general is simply getting weaker.

But in light of the WHO report on meat consumption, industry is showing signs that it can change. McDonald's Canada's decision to procure antibiotic-free chicken for its restaurants is a textbook case of a reaction to consumer preference.

In March, the company's U.S. division made headlines by announcing that it would phase out chicken treated with some antibiotics over the next couple of years. But McDonald's Canada's response was more guarded. The company stated that it wanted to merely evaluate whether to make a similar move, since Canada's farming landscape is strictly regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. These comments initially made McDonald's Canada look ineffective, despite the fact that the chain is one of our chicken farmers' largest customers. (An estimated 400 million Chicken McNuggets are consumed annually in Canada.) But after several months of investigation, the company has decided to go antibiotic-free.

Benefiting from its enormous pull-powered approach, the U.S. division of McDonald's can do practically anything it feels is right for its business, as long as it sees value in what it wants to achieve – this only works in an environment of supply-chain transparency.

In Canada, however, things are very different. With supply management, recognized farming practices help marketing boards set prices so that farmers can make a decent living. By limiting imports with high tariffs and controlling production through quotas, the equilibrium between supply and demand is much easier to achieve than under an open-market system. Codes of practice are always challenging in Canada, since farmers are continually concerned about how markets react to higher prices. We shouldn't forget that chicken competes with other animal proteins such as pork or beef – price points are, therefore, carefully managed across the chain.

Farming is often perceived as a very traditionalist economic sector. Things are done in particular ways. And why not? For chicken farmers, things have mostly worked well for decades. Antibiotics have been around since the end of the Second World War, when protein production became a priority in North America. They keep animals healthy and prevent losses. Production output is enhanced and chicken prices remain stable for consumers.

For years, that economic rationale was legitimately justifiable. But times are changing. With sound research, we know more about the implications of antibiotic use in farming and adjustments are necessary.

Essentially, Canadian chicken farmers are demonstrating that supply management can adapt when there is pressure to change. Changing the code of practice for supply-managed commodities in Canada such as chicken is a slow, difficult transformation, but the industry's effort to align with consumer expectations is possible.

The same thing can be said about egg farmers, who decided to partner with McDonald's Canada a few weeks ago to supply cage-free product by 2025. Addressing consumers' concerns about animal welfare and their own health was simply the right thing to do. Because of McDonald's clout and market power, it will be easier for other buyers to do the same. Some have been asking for these changes for years.

For the most part, McDonald's commitment to Canadian commodities has historically been ignored. All the beef, eggs and chicken served by McDonald's Canada are Canadian-produced, whereas the British division, for example, procures most of its chicken from Brazil.

McDonald's Canada and Canadian chicken farmers should be lauded for building a partnership that works for all, especially for consumers. Let's hope more of these partnerships come to fruition.

Interact with The Globe