PHOTOS: Where’s the beef? Not in Alberta, if this province’s beef industry can do anything about it. One thing this story has nothing to do with is small-time ranchers like the guy on the steer or independent restaurants like the one run by the mom and pop below. The former picture belongs to the Golden (Colorado) History Museum and the latter to the Lincoln County (Mississippi) Public Library. I admit I was surprised to find there’s a Lincoln County in Mississippi.

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.)

RanchTurns 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.

RestaurantConservative 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 Horton’s 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 …

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  1. Producers and boycotters have some other things in common. They were mute when Cargill Inc. and JBS SA. were relinquished to U.S. and South America. They were cheerleaders of the sale of The Wheat Board to the Saudis. They are tireless supporters of free enterprise and free trade but would impose another standard in an Earls boycott. They have never put the safety of consumers ahead of cost cutting. They never alerted anyone to the travesties at XL before it was shut down, the public investment written off, and sold off to our amigos. My appetite for beef never returned in the post XL debacle, and I still shun the meat aisle portion of Costco (once trusted).

    All the stuff that hit the fan comes down to a matter of trust. Do I trust Cargil, JBS, and the Saudis? No. Am I inclined to give Earls the benefit of the doubt? Yes. Are Albertans likely to applaud free enterprise again when Earls (like Tims) is sold to foreign interest? If the cowboy boots fit…

    1. Here is an interview at the link below, that confirms AB industry is playing catch-up, and only because it’s forced to…only because of citizens/consumers getting behind efforts like Earls is AB industry being forced to improve.

      AB industry still allows antibiotic use for growth promotion vs. the Certified Humane standard.

      But you have to be a determined and careful follower of this issue to get to the meaning on that issue, in these kinds of comments at the link below: ‘a little more prescriptive’. vs. ‘in Alberta, that’s not specifically identified.’ Clever boy. A euphemistic way of putting the fact that AB cattle industry is not banned from using antibiotics for growth promotion. But at the link, this expert, well…hey, nice persuasive look with the cowboy hat – earthy-professor knows his cow-shit look… dude.

      The old 2×4 adage applies to pushing AB’s corporate-feedlot cattle industry: Sometimes you have to swing a 2X4 upside the head to get their attention.

      excerpt: ‘DG: Earls has suggested it’s offering something better than your average Alberta rancher is doing. Define “better.”

      EP: I don’t think it’s better, it’s just a different program. For example, the certified program is a little more prescriptive in certain ways. For example, when it comes to antibiotic use, the certified program allows for antibiotic use for therapeutic reasons but not for being used as a growth promoter. That’s very specifically identified. In the codes of practice in Alberta, that’s not specifically identified.’

      1. excerpt: ‘Antibiotic use on farms is creating superbug infections in humans.’

        The next time you are in a hospital, especially for surgery and need antibiotics to protect you from death via bacterial infections…or from losing a limb to antibiotic resistant bacteria…think about supporting Earls (or A&W)… for their opposition to antibiotics used to accelerate the growth of animals we raise to kill and eat.

        excerpt: For animal producers, antibiotics are an important management tool to keep their herds and flocks healthy and profitable. It’s estimated that up to 80 per cent of the world’s antibiotics are used in agriculture.

        But every time a bug comes up against a drug, whether it’s in humans or animals, that’s a fresh opportunity to evolve a new defence.

        And the links are now clear. Antibiotic use on farms is creating superbug infections in humans.

        The World Health Organization warns that unless antibiotic use is reined in, the world is headed for a dystopian future where routine infections are deadly.

        Antibiotic resistance threatens everyone, WHO warns
        CBC Marketplace: Superbugs in the supermarket

        So it’s a surprise to learn that Canada has no coordinated national system to control antibiotics in agriculture.

        There is no way of monitoring what drugs are being used and how farmers are using them, and no reliable statistical data on the volumes of antibiotics being given to food animals.

  2. One should consider that beef is the most expensive crop to raise on a farm. It takes more of everything to raise a beef for market Consider the barns, water infrastructure in general and machinery.

    That said I do think a lot of their price increase has do do with a tit for tat with Notley.

  3. The slap in the face commented was in relation to the humane treatment of cattle-intimating Alberta ranchers don’t practice this style of raising cattle. As well, the beef producers stated they can easily supply the chain with all the beef they need according to a local spokesperson for the industry.In addition, a spokesperson for Earls did say they use antibiotics when the animal is sick-just like most ranchers do.

    1. That “slap in the face” is actually a wake-up call to the industry. Your backing of their “can easily supply the chain with all the beef they need” shows poor understanding of the English language. If you ordered a red car and they sent you a blue one, you’d bitch about it. But when Earl’s request for antibiotic and hormone free beef couldn’t be filled, you expect them to accept any crap they’re sent. And again, (relating to your reading skills), it’s one thing to treat an animal that needs antibiotics for a specific ailment, and a complete;y different can of worms when the whole herd is “protected” with massive doses of unnecessary antibiotics (just like most ranchers do).

  4. Thank you for this brilliant primer on the Alberta beef industry. Cargill and JBS would both be out of business if they were not allowed to exploit temporary foreign workers.

  5. Great post! I knew something was weird with the Alberta beef people when they started to oppose COOL. They kept saying Alberta beef was amazing yet didn’t want to label that? It seems so strange. I find this an illuminating blog. I can’t help thinking the farmers raising Alberta beef don’t seem to get any benefits from the industry.

    1. Exactly….its set up to turn the actual producer into a slave for the big meat packing plants. Just as we connsumers become a slave to the tainted products they lay on us from time to time. What’s the alternative for ordinary people? Buy expensive organic meat or go vegetarion!

  6. re: ‘Plus, if you ask me, one slaughterhouse is pretty much as bad as another if you happen to be a cow or a steer.’
    AB’s ‘ …huge slaughterhouses run by the same two corporations.’

    The final hours and minutes of a steer’s life and the conditions of its death are substantively improved under the Certified Humane practices that Earl’s new source is required to follow.

    Canada’s animal welfare practices are mostly voluntary. And little or no certification/verification that they are being enforced.

    Certified Humane is the ‘Gold Standard’ for treating animals we raise to kill and eat.

    Here is the link to the specific slaughter standards for Certified Humane:

    When AB’s corporate slaughterhouses open their doors to public scrutiny and verification of their practices compared to Certified Humane, you’ll know hell’s frozen over.

    Some independent smaller operations in Alberta are probably meeting these standards. But as Earl’s points out, not enough volume for their restaurant chain.

    And until AB gov’t were to push via regulation, of AB’s feedlot and slaughtering industry won’t bother with those standards. Costs!

    FWIW…A number of the points raised in Climenhaga’s post are supported and supplemented by academics who study the industry.

    See the comments in one of the better Edm Jnl articles here:

    FWIW… feeding livestock anti-biotics… contributes directly to anti-biotic resistant bacteria/public health crisis:

    Canada’s medical establishment has urged an immediate ban antibiotics as growth aids in livestock…3 years ago.


      In this article, useful explanation of AB’s situation from one of AB’s cattle ranchers who has ‘earned the Animal Welfare Approved seal indicating it produces ethical meat.”

      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.

      This article also notes that there is one slaughterhouse in AB that does meet Certified Humane. So… if more beef ranchers go antibiotic/hormone free, Earl’s should be able to again start buying AB.

  7. “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.”

    I once worked in Toronto. I used to take the streetcar on St Clair Avenue West to Weston Road and then transferred to a trolleybus. The trolleybus stop was located directly across from the entrance to a slaughterhouse. I would see the wood slatted trucks delivering cows. The cows were screaming and pissing and shitting. They knew what was in store for them. I sometimes caught eye contact with a cow, and it was look of terror. The stench of death was everywhere.

  8. I’ve had some dealings with some organic farms before and it’s quite a process to become certified as organic. I’m guessing to have your beef stamped as “certified humane” you have to jump thru quite a few hoops and probably there isn’t enough Alberta beef producers ready to make that commitment.

    With all this talk about raising beef humanely. I wonder if anyone looked at it from the cow’s perspective? I mean, if I was a cow, destined for the slaughterhouse, I’m thinking I’d want to be ingesting as much drugs, pills, hormones, booze, and other mind-altering chemicals as possible, just to get through my miserable day. For dinner I want to be eating greasy burgers and french fries washed down with a truckload of gravy and ice cream My goal would be to drop drop dead of a heart attack long before that meeting with the butcher’s blade.

  9. As an aside, Earls may want to change its advertising and eliminate the word “humane”. Creekstone Farms, which is where they plan to purchase the “new” beef, slaughters the animals using halal methods… other words the still alive animal has its throat cut and it is hung to bleed out. That doesn’t seem very humane to me.

  10. Interesting view, yet the connection between beef producers an the CWB is false. As a former CWB farmer elected Director and a wheat barley an canola grower your statement saying actions by the AB government of the day an AB beef by “advocating” for marketing choice to keep freed prices low, well that is true bull crap ! The monopoly kept domestic feed prices artificially low, compared to say US prices. Farmers wanted choice an an open market for thier wheat an barley an are quite happy with marketing freedom.
    Makes me wonder if the author did source the facts?

    1. The CWB did not keep feed prices low. Multiple international trade tribunals found that the CWB got at or better than the market price for the grain – feed grain included – it was selling.

      “In October 1999, the CWB was found to not subsidize cattle feeders.” This is a quote from page 4 of the book *The Canadian Wheat Board* by Andrew Schmitz and Hartley Furtan who are both economists. On that page the authors are discussing the trade challenge the US leveled against the CWB that claimed it was creating excess supply on the prairies. This was found not to be the case. As a former director I would have expected you to know this.

      The actual book is on google books here

    2. Not to mention the last part about antibiotics and steroids. Most definitely not true. This author thinks they know a whole lot about the cattle industry but is really just a hipster idiot caught up in all the fear mongering and propaganda.

      1. Lindsay: First, I want to thank you for describing me as a hipster. In truth, I’m a little old for the compliment, although it pleased me nevertheless. As for the idiot part, I’ll leave that to the small number of readers reached by this blog to decide for themselves. Perhaps there is something to it. In the years I covered agriculture for the Calgary Herald – back when the Calgary Herald still covered agriculture – I used to say, “the more I learn, the less I know.” It is a complicated topic, and the the issues of agricultural trade and the use and abuse of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones are even more complicated. So there is always the possibility I have got something wrong, by nuance if not by literal fact – although no one has yet persuaded me this is the case with regards to this post. Your response, however, is quite typical of that of the Alberta beef industry, to wit, to move directly to insulting and abusing people who take a different position on a given issue than that favoured by the industry, rather than trying to persuade them they are wrong. This doesn’t make me feel as if you have a very strong case. If you had read the piece with any care, you would see I have plenty of sympathy and respect for producers, though not so much for the two remaining multinationals who do virtually all the processing in this province. I am an agnostic on the questions of hormone use for growth promotion and the prophylactic application of antibiotics, both of which do occur in Alberta, as well as the supposed humanity of the slaughterhouses so certified in the United States. The principal point of this story is the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of beef industry organizations who preach market fundamentalism out of one side of their mouths and protectionism and regional patriotism out of the other when it suits them. Tell me this is not so!

        1. Normally I just snipe and kvetch from the sidelines, but I have to comment on this. Having grown up and thankfully escaping mechanized agriculture, I know some things.
          Dairy and beef cattle? Your critics can need to take a careful look at the dictionary definition of cruelty. Pork? For shame. My family has industrial pork, dairy, and beef in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and it’s not pretty. It’s not humane. It’s not even sensible. But boy howdy, it’s cost efficient!

  11. Australia found out that they were one of the world’s biggest exporters of water – via the beef industry. Cattle require an enormous amount of water, and they’re hard on the landscape, require a lot of food. Really not a good source of food for us. The Brits didn’t start eating large amounts of been until getting into the 1300s, because they provided milk and cheese. And labour, as cattle can be turned into working, useful animals — oxen. I suppose they relied more on game and fish before they started eating cattle.

  12. Dave I really don’t know where to start.
    As far as cool goes, the cost of segregating Canadian cattle in the US slaughterhouse reduced what Canadian producers received.
    My knowledge of the TPP is limited so I won’t pretend to have an opinion.
    Personally I was glad to see the end of the CWB and I feel my returns on grain sales have improved.
    No doubt in my mind that the European Union uses the hormone free demand as a non-tariff barrier.
    The use of hormones in beef production improves efficiency and reduces the amount of feed required to finish a steer to market weight, enviromentally friendly IMO. As for antibiotics on our cow calf operation they are only used when necessary, I can’t speak for anyone else.
    As a small family run operation I can’t speak to foreign workers or bill 6.

    As for my thoughts on Earls decision, it paints all Alberta beef producers in a negative light. I would like to think on my own farm we do our best to give our cows a comfortable life. They get a balanced diet(for a cow lol) clean warm bedding and veterinary directed health care, what more can I say. Have a good day:-)

    1. re: ‘I would like to think on my own farm we do our best to give our cows a comfortable life.’

      And most people, urban or rural, would believe you given the description of your operation.

      The problem is that without the pressure from certification efforts like Certified Humane, the majority of the cattle raised and killed to eat, will not ever be raised through operations like yours. The corporate, industrial approach of feedlot finishing and corporate slaughterhouses will never change until the market changes. Governments are intimidated by the economic power of the industry.

      But the ordinary citizen who eats at Earls can get behind this summary of Certified Humane:

      excerpt: ‘Earls said it plans to serve only Certified Humane beef — meaning beef raised without antibiotics, steroids or added hormones, and slaughtered according to the specifications of an animal welfare expert.’

      The last part ‘slaughtered according to the specifications of an animal welfare expert.’
      is a key challenge not addressed very well in the media treatment of this issue, in my opinion. Alberta’s two major corporate slaughterhouse operations will not get onside with this aspect of certification because it would slowdown the kill line, IMO.

      And until alternate slaughterhouses/abbatoirs are built, farmers/ranchers like you will have a difficult time.

  13. I have no sympathy for supporters of globalization who only want protection, whether by governments or by local consumers, when it is their ox that is gored. I support the local food movement but it seems to me that all the positions that the beef industry has taken, until it was their product that got spurned, have always gone in the other direction. While Farmer B is probably more typical of cattle producers than the noisy big guys who are associated with Wildrose, the smaller guys did not protest the big fellows making all that noise against occupational health and safety legislation applying to their former slaves. So I really don’t care from whom Earls buys its beef.

  14. Certified Humane is more of a trade name than a policy. Look up certified humane and you won’t find any printed guidelines they follow. They have a pencil pusher charge the farmer a fee to certify the farm but the other 365 days of the year where are they. The problem farmers have with these so called humane trade marks is that they insinuate they are better without the facts.

      1. It’s still a marketing service. There is no quality control from Ag Canada nor the US Dept of Agriculture.

  15. This all sounds about right, to my memory. When I heard outraged Albertans, and ranchers saying their beef was humanely raised, I had to raise my eyebrows. Because I know we only have 2 slaughter houses left, where we had 17 before the Conservative juggernaut of agri-business free trade started dismantling small operations. Remember the tainted meat scandal of a few years back…workers testified that speed, not cleanliness was the rule on that meat chopping assembly line. Wherever big business takes over, food quality is bound to go down…

    Having grown up on a mixed farm in Saskatchewan, I know how good good beef can be. But my brother went out of the cattle business after the mad cow scare…also brought to alberta courtesy of agri-business and its grandiose ideas of trading with anyone anywhere……..and now I rarely eat beef. Can’t afford the humanely raised grass fed stuff…..and can’t stomach what comes from the supermarket.
    I know restaurants may be getting the best cuts…….but I also know where the animals are prepared for slaughter, how they are slaughtered, and none of that is humane, hormone or other risk free. And advertising won’t change that……only sustainable good ranching practices…that give choice to the producers, will make that change.

    Alberta should get on it, if it wishes to restore its reputation for world class beef.

    1. Before globalized trade effects kicked in… it was gov’t porkbarrel funding for southern AB.

      Northern and central AB mostly lost it’s slaughter houses/packing plants/feedlots due to Lougheed and then Getty providing over $5 Billion direct subsidies from AB gov’t/taxpayers to build irrigation dams and canals in southern AB. Thus, with the free water, and more sun it’s possible for southern AB to out compete northern AB.

      The final big investment was the Oldman Dam in the late 80s.

      Pure pork-barrel patronage to southern AB ridings by Lougheed and Getty. That spending on irrigation is the reason there is a trivial amount of feedlots anywhere in AB except southern AB among the irrigation. And why there are no large packing plants left anywhere but Brooks. Water/feed/feedlots/corporate slaughtehouse industry concentrated because PC spending shifted the industry south.

      PC political history favoring Big Agric: At the 1988 PC convention, as a delegate, I witnessed northern AB constituencies rep’s get shouted down by southern AB rep’s, when those NAB’s tried to get a motion passed to review future dam projects both for positive and negative economic effects. The example that triggered the debate was the Oldman Dam.

      AB was borrowing money in the late 80s for deficit spending, so spending prov tax dollars on southern AB agric, was making the rest of us, including northern AB farmers subsidize their southern competitors. But Getty and the PC cabinet used economic analyses just focused on the benefits to Lethbridge region to justify more irrigation spending down there on the Oldman Dam. No provincial costs included by leaving out the fact that it was borrowed money. Independent economists repeatedly pointed out this BS, too. No matter.

      I quit the PCs over that hypocrisy. To witness the patronage-based politics in that policy bear-pit session made me realize just how ridiculous it was to claim that my PCs were a free enterprise party. Nasty, pure pork-barrel, machine-like politics. In those days you could elect a fire hydrant as a PC in southern AB.

      It was just sickening see northern AB farmers/ranchers get booed down, and be blocked from voting on an economically balanced approach, when they had been suffering years of drought with no significant assistance from the province. FWIW, my family had both dairy and beef operations.

  16. Check out TK Ranch-based out of Hanna, AB. They do it right from birth to feed to slaughter-they even have their own butcher house. We buy 90% of our meat there. Their ranch/farm is open for visitors.

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