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Where's the beef? Alberta's cattle industry is only getting what it ordered from Earls

It Ain't Alberta Beef

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As pretty well everyone in Alberta must know by now, the province's beef industry is in a full-blown swivet over the decision by a Canadian restaurant chain to purchase its "certified humane" beef in the United States.

Earls Restaurants of Vancouver announced on Tuesday it had become "the first restaurant chain in North America to serve 100-per-cent certified humane beef, raised without the use of antibiotics or steroids and no added hormones." (Emphasis added.)

Turns out, when it came to procuring such beef, Earls admitted it couldn't get what it wanted anywhere in Canada, let alone Alberta. Just the same, that was the moment the 100-per-cent natural fertilizer began to hit the fan.

Judging from the #BoycottEarls campaign that was immediately ginned up by someone in the virtual world of the Internet, one would almost think Earls was guilty of high treason for deciding to buy steaks from somewhere other than Alberta.

"It's a slap in the face," huffed Bob Lowe, chair of the Alberta Beef Producers, in what has become the most quoted quote in this teapot tempest.

Conservative politicians, anxious to brand themselves (ouch!) as Friends of the Farm, were quick to jump on the bandwagon. "Let's hope every bar and restaurant NOT called Earl's has an increase in business starting tomorrow," Tweeted interim Progressive Conservative Leader Ric McIver. "I won' (sic) be setting foot in that place!" Wildrose Opposition leader Brian Jean and even Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall joined the stampede.

Now, I don't know exactly what's behind the Earls decision. Company spokespeople say it's customer demand. I'll admit to a nature skeptical enough to nurse the suspicion that, one way or another, self-interest always motivates corporate decisions. So I'm prepared to take Earls' arguments with a grain of seasoned salt. Plus, if you ask me, one slaughterhouse is pretty much as bad as another if you happen to be a cow or a steer.

Still, it's pretty darned rich, given their history, for organizations like the Alberta Beef Producers, the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and many others in the Alberta livestock industry to get their blue jeans in a twist over a restaurant chain making corporate decisions based on, you know, market signals.

The Alberta beef industry -- and I do mean industry -- has for years been on the front lines of a protracted war for international and local market conditions that make it easy for corporations like Earls to source their product wherever they please.

What's more, as far as Alberta beef industry organizations have been concerned, if other agricultural sectors are hurt by what they want -- be they grain farmers represented by the Canadian Wheat Board or supply managed poultry, egg and dairy producers -- well, that's just fine. Consider the strong positions Alberta beef industry organizations have taken over the past few years:

  • Opposition to country-of-origin labelling (COOL) in the United States, complete with demands Canada pursue retaliatory tariffs against the U.S. They argued U.S. COOL laws were just needless added costs for the industry. But one suspects they didn't want U.S. consumers to know where their meat came from for fear they would want to Buy American.
  • Pressure for Canada to sign the Trans Pacific Partnership regardless of what it does to supply-managed dairy, poultry and egg farms, where many small farmers are likely to be pushed out of business. Never mind, it's good for beef.
  • Demands for "marketing choice" for everyone, whether they like it or not. The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, a government of Alberta entity closely tied to the industry, advocated for an end to the Canadian Wheat Board to keep cattle feeders' prices down. The Harper Government followed through on this demand, despite the opposition of many grain farmers. The Alberta NDP has now dismantled ALMA.
  • Opposition to the European Union's policy of restricting imports of North American beef because it is not hormone free, claiming this is merely a trade barrier.
  • Consistent scoffing at legitimate concerns at home and abroad about hormones or antibiotics in meat.
  • Opposition to any restrictions on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for cattle feedlots.
  • Plus, of course, angry efforts to sink the Alberta NDP's implementation of basic health and safety rules for agricultural operations and constitutionally protected rights for Canadian farm workers.

Sometimes this seemed foolish -- opposition to COOL, for example, when Alberta enjoys the climate and environment that truly allows us to produce the best beef in the world. Sometimes it was blatantly self-interested -- arguing against niche market demand for drug-free products that were inconvenient to produce.

But they have been consistent cheerleaders for wide-open, uncontrolled international markets, opponents of labelling laws and restrictions on hormones and antibiotics, and oriented toward the interests of industrial scale feedlots and slaughterhouses in Alberta.

So if you're an ordinary, urban Albertan, you can get angry about what Earls has done if you like. You're even welcome to boycott Earls restaurants if you feel like it. But just remember:

This has nothing to do with producing or purchasing food locally. Alberta's beef industry wants to export as much as possible and it doesn’t care how far it goes.

And it has nothing to do with protecting small farms and ranches here in Alberta, any more than Earls is just a mom-and-pop diner on Jasper Avenue.

Alberta cattle are raised in clean, natural conditions. That is good. But then they're sold to feedlots tied to two big multinational beef packers with operations in Alberta, Cargill Inc. and JBS SA. When they get there, they’re loaded up with hormones and antibiotics before they're trucked off to huge slaughterhouses run by the same two corporations.

These industrial-scale packing companies have little interest in segregating and monitoring hormone and antibiotic free cattle, and precious little in the way the poor beasts are treated. It is not in their interest to cater to consumers or restaurant chains that, for whatever reasons, want to eliminate hormones and antibiotics.

Even if Earls could find the beef it wants in Canada, it's unlikely the premiums such a product would fetch would be passed back to farmers and ranchers.

Boycotting a corporate restaurant chain may make you feel better, but it's not going to do anything to help small Alberta beef producers.

So I predict this #BoycottEarls thing will go about as far as the boycott of Tim Hortons by a bunch of far-right nuts when Canada’s (American owned) coffee house decided not to annoy its customers with canned pipeline advertisements.

Heard about that one lately? No, I didn't think so …

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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