Earls' Decision to Source U.S. Humane Beef: What's at Steak?

This week Earls announced that it had switched from sourcing Alberta beef to “Certified Humane” beef from Kansas, generating substantial coverage in Canadian mainstream news. The Western Canadian restaurant company will now source only Certified Humane beef; the company argues that it was necessary to switch to U.S. suppliers to meet this objective, citing insufficient Albertan supply.

Certified Humane is a relatively small U.S.-based label which, according to my scan of the website, includes just one Canadian farm: Calgary – Lone Pine Colony (L.P. Farm Fresh Chicken), which produces Certified Humane chicken. The label is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care. That organization produced a side-by-side comparison of the Certified Humane standards with some others. According to this, the label differs from USDA Organic in that it requires humane euthanasia at slaughter and has broader space requirements for the animals. The comparison does not include Canadian Organic, which does include minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements (if you are curious, you can read the Canadian Organic standards here).

This incident highlights the challenges that companies can face when aspects of social license intersect: in this case, demand for humane and antibiotic-free food has run up against local pride in the agricultural industry, at a time when few are bullish about the Alberta economy. There has since been no shortage of outrage, with producers calling the move a “slap in the face”.

One line of debate in reaction to this news is whether Earls should have gone beyond the Certified Humane label to find humane, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from Alberta. For example, certified organic producers would meet the same, perhaps even higher, standards in these respects. In that regard, rising demand for certification for restaurant suppliers may present an opportunity for Albertan organic farmers and ranchers.

Industry leaders have criticized Earls for failing to consult with them, saying that a Canadian program that is currently in development, Verified Beef Production Plus, could be amended to include the option for farms to opt in to hormone-free criteria. Other Canadian labels are available, including the British Columbian SPCA Certified food label. Given the “crowding” of the ethical label market, some worry that farmers with high standards are being unfairly overlooked, as this incident suggests.

This all illustrates some of the main actors in the political economy of consumer label uptake. Consumer demand for humane and antibiotic-free meat is an important background condition, but given the proliferation of multiple labels with low consumer awareness the decisions of major downstream suppliers (in this case, restaurants) can shape the choices of upstream producers as to whether and which label they adopt. Although governments did not feature in this particular story, they can also play an important role in determining which labels gain the greatest uptake.