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Where's the beef (from)?

So Earl’s has reversed its total ban on Alberta beef? As someone generally unaffected by fads or fashion, I was initially uninterested in Earl’s decision to serve only Certified Humane beef products in its trendy restaurants.

So Earl’s has reversed its total ban on Alberta beef?

As someone generally unaffected by fads or fashion, I was initially uninterested in Earl’s decision to serve only Certified Humane beef products in its trendy restaurants. But when I heard that there was a social media campaign growing to boycott Earl’s Restaurants and with my bartending niece’s college fund threatened, I did some research.

It is still unclear when Alberta beef will once again be served at Earl’s. As long as Earl’s insists on the “Certified Humane,” as opposed to comparable standards, it might be difficult for Alberta ranchers to qualify.

I believe in markets. Generally speaking, I think any restaurant should be able to source their beef from any supplier or suppliers it chooses. Similarly, if consumers are dissatisfied with a business for any reason, they ought to be able to take their business elsewhere. That is the self-correcting mechanism of free players in free markets. However, for markets to properly function, accurate information must be available. The product information available and that being conveyed in this matter, however, is very different.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, “Certified Humane” is a third-party designation and registered trademark. It is not a government standard or even a standard approved by any body with the authority to do so. “Certified Humane” is the brand of American based group, Human Farm Animal Care. There are other protocols such as the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Code of Practice, the Feedlot Assessment Program and the Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. None are official and all have varying standards. Objectively, no standard is necessarily better, only different.

Secondly, the notion that food chain beef can be Certified Humane is preposterous. The root word of humane is “human.” defines “humane” as an adjective characterized by tenderness, compassion and sympathy for people and animals, especially the suffering or distressed; AND acting in a manner that causes the least harm to people or animals.

As a result, there is no objective standard of “humane,” only varying degrees of harm and therefore varying degrees of “inhumane.” Unless you cause no harm, your actions, by definition, are somewhere on the harm/inhumane spectrum.

On this point (and only this point) I agree with the vegans. It is simply not possible to breed mammals, fatten and then slaughter them for entrance into the human food chain and still claim to be causing no, or even the least, harm. Admittedly, there are varying degrees of mistreatment, but no animal raised for the food chain has what, in human terms, can be considered a life marked by compassion. Cattle are not pets.

Now, I would prefer that the beef I consume (and I consume a fair bit) suffers the least possible harm, but the absence of antibiotics, steroids and growth hormones does not equal having been treated as a pet. It is not possible to certify as humane, beef raised to be slaughtered. No subjective protocol can be objectively certified. Certified Humane is a misnomer and a misleading brand.

Moreover, the absence of antibiotics is a contentious matter. If an animal develops an infection, according to the “humane” protocol, it should be given medicine. But then it loses the CH standard and must be sold as normal beef at a lower price. Does the administration of antibiotics make the beef certified inhumane? Surely, giving a sick animal a dose of antibiotic is humane. Further query if delaying drugs as long as possible, in an attempt to maintain the premium price for CH, is “humane?”

Earl’s biggest mistake, however, was not its attempt to capitalize on vain consumers, wanting to feel better about the food choices they make; it was announcing the sole sourcing of supply.

Spring Creek Ranch, near Vegreville, for example produces beef that is steroid and artificial hormone free. But as a Canadian producer, it is not a Humane Farm Animal Care club member and accordingly, the CH third party designation is not easily or cheaply available to them. But why not buy as much steroid free beef as you can locally and get the rest of your stated inadequate local supply from Kansas? But remember the increased carbon footprint you are making by importing beef from a supplier in a different country and time zone.

Clearly, their second mistake was announcing the Alberta beef ban. A&W has been advertising that its hamburgers are hormone and steroid free for years. Apparently, they import largely from Australia. But by not advertising that they were sourcing imported beef, they were able to avoid the #boycottA&W hashtag.

But a successful restaurant chain would not be that sloppy. Earls confirms that they have been test marketing the concept for months. They obviously calculated and concluded that the pushback from Alberta ranchers and their supporters would be more than offset by the free publicity aimed at those jumping on the cause de jour.

I overheard a couple of golfers yesterday wondering out loud what Certified Humane beef tastes like. I did not see them in the clubhouse later; I suspect that they were satisfying that curiosity.

As long as Earl’s insists on the Certified Humane brand, as opposed to comparable standards and protocols, it is likely that Alberta ranchers will remain shut out. So boycott Earls if you must. But before you do, make sure you are not being as disingenuous as they are. Remember my niece and all of the local bakeries, poultry producers and craft breweries that supply product to Earl’s. And remember that the real reason you are boycotting them is because they are brilliant marketers, seeking only to exploit a growing market of consumers, whose appetite for beef is surpassed only by their consumer vanity and their need to make themselves feel better about their food choices.

Brent Rathgeber QC is a St. Albert lawyer and former MP.