National | Opinion

Our beef is not just with Earl’s – a better system is within reach

When Earl’s announced it could not find a large and consistent enough supply of Canadian beef that met its criteria, there was a quick and emotional backlash. Yet, Earl’s sourcing decision also highlights Canada’s need for a more diversified beef system that would create more value for both farmers and consumers.

First, we must look at where in the supply chain the decisions are made regarding synthetic hormones, antibiotics and slaughter methods. Over 90 percent of Canada’s federally inspected beef is slaughtered and processed by two foreign-owned companies – JBS of Brazil and US-based Cargill – using two packing plants in Alberta and one in Ontario. These companies own the feedlots where they finish a large proportion of the cattle that supply their packing plants. They have a great deal of influence over the price paid for livestock, and thus the kinds of practices that make other feedlots economically viable.

It is understandable that family farmers feel unfairly labelled by Earl’s decision. Farmers do not have any say in the packing plants’ slaughter methods or in the pharmaceuticals used by large feedlots. Canadian farmers and ranchers typically raise beef animals in relatively small herds that spend their summers grazing on pasture. Cow-calf producers generally do not use hormone implants or antibiotics in the feed because they are both expensive and unnecessary. Antibiotics are used when needed to treat sick animals, which is a humane practice. Some farmers are able finish their beef (on grass or grain) then direct-market to consumers or supply niche markets such as restaurants and specialty retailers, and consequently obtain a good price that reflects their production methods. Most, however, must sell into the system that Cargill and JBS control and take the price offered. It is not fair to blame the farmer for the decisions of these corporations.

We would like to challenge restaurant chains such as Earl’s to find a way to support Canadian farmers while also listening to their customers and avoiding the ecological footprint of importing meat from the USA. Couldn’t they work with a network of locally-owned, provincially-inspected abattoirs that contract with farmers who produce according to their specifications? Cow-calf producers are already on-side. Smaller feedlots might need to be established to finish the cattle without using the hormones and prophylactic antibiotics. Some of the abattoirs might need to invest in some upgrades, but with an assured market they should be willing to do so. This investment would also allow them to serve a broader market. With increasing consumer interest in local food, demand is likely to grow. Such an approach would contribute to localizing the food system by helping create a market for beef producers in each province where the restaurant chain operates, and would contribute to the infrastructure needed for local food systems.

The fact that Earl’s chose to look to the USA for a reliable source of 900 tonnes annually also shows that Canada is far from being in a position to benefit from the CETA trade deal. If ratified, CETA will give Canada market access to export over 50,000 tonnes of beef per year to the European Union. However, like Earl’s, the EU excludes beef produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics, though it does not require Temple Grandin’s humane slaughter methods.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has helped large, foreign corporations dominate the federally-inspected beef sector by designing a regulatory system that makes abattoirs so costly to operate it largely excludes smaller companies. Meanwhile, beef sector commodity groups appear to be reluctant to challenge the status quo. The Earl’s situation is highly visible, but is just one of the opportunities our farmers have lost due to the lack of alternatives in Canada’s system.

Let’s turn the Earl’s decision from a negative into a positive. It shines a light on Canada’s commodity-oriented beef sector and the absurdity of claims that CETA is going to help farmers. Farmers, ranchers and consumers would be much better off if Canadian agriculture and food policy turned towards supporting the kind of diverse, viable and transparent system that would allow consumer-oriented companies to source all of their products from Canadian farms. Perhaps Earl’s customers will also convince the company to add “raised locally” to its ethical sourcing criteria.