When A&W Restaurants first rolled out their “Better Beef” marketing campaign touting the merits of beef “raised without the use of hormones and steroids” and other similar claims, the agricultural community was quick to cry foul. 

Science bloggers and cattle producers pointed out that the amount of “added hormones” in conventionally raised beef is infinitesimal – we’re talking several decimal places here – compared to the total hormone load that’s in any animal. They also pointed out using these practices make production more efficient, meaning more beef on less land. Good for the environment, yes?

Then it got worse. When A&W could not source enough of their “sin-free” beef domestically, they started going to foreign suppliers. Cattle producers howled with outrage. Ag bloggers vowed never to darken A&W doors again, castigating the fast food chain for an immoral marketing campaign preying on people’s fears and misinformation. The Twitterverse had a mild paroxysm around the hashtag #DonewithAW that continues to this day.

The result? The company just posted a news release announcing record growth for its A&W Revenue Royalties Income Fund, something that Chairman and CEO of A&W Food Services Paul Hollands attributes in part to, “Our relentless focus on bringing better ingredients to our guests.” The release expounds on this:  “better ingredients include beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids, eggs from hens fed only a vegetarian diet without animal by-products, chicken raised without the use of antibiotics, and organic and Fair Trade coffee.”

So, what’s next? Should someone point out chickens are omnivores and eat meat if it’s available (throw a soup bone in a chicken coop and see what happens). That chickens will sometimes eat each other as they try to establish pecking order, something poultry producers work hard to prevent? And of course, chickens eat bugs, which are not strictly vegetarian…

Recently, Earl’s Restaurants jumped on the bandwagon, with a move to serve only Certified Humane beef at its 60-odd outlets across the country. Again, there were howls of outrage as the company shunned Alberta beef, this time in favour of imports from Kansas – by some reports due to the Canadian farmers not yet having the required paperwork in hand. Again, the Twitterverse is convulsed, this time under the #BoycottEarls hashtag. 

At first, the Canadian restaurant chain was unrepentant: produce to our new standards, in sufficient quantity, and we’ll talk about doing business again. But Canadian farmers were having none of it. They argued for example, that their beef is produced using the highest ethical practices, and that “Certified Humane” is an arbitrary standard that isn’t even consistent across in its country of origin, the United States. They did acknowledge that that similar standards in Canada need to be made consistent across the country.

Essentially, they argued Earl’s was insinuating that Canadian beef was inferior based not on quality, but a lack of paperwork. They castigated the chain for not willing to work with farmers, something that MacDonald’s is doing with their current marketing campaign and their Verified Sustainable Beef pilot project.

This time, the social media backlash gained traction. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall tweeted support for the cattle farmers, and a tweet appeared with a picture of Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart bottle feeding a calf on his own farm. The social media storm bled into mainstream media, where it became national news. Within a week, Earl’s Restaurants announced they had reversed their decision. “We made a mistake when we moved away from Canadian beef,” said company president Mo Jessa in an interview reported in the Globe and Mail. The critics praised the decision.

Farmers and their allies must be exasperated, asking themselves why, once again, was such a defense even necessary? They are proud of the food they produce and gladly feed it to their own families; shouldn’t that be enough?

Ostensibly, the answer lies not in the science of agriculture and food production, but in the science of sales – specifically, values-based marketing. To wit: find out what people care about, then align your marketing messaging to show that your company cares about the same things and is willing to deliver products in line with those values. You can even be disingenuous with it, as with A&W’s careful wording to ensure they’re not actually lying outright.

In this model, it matters jack squat where your customers get their values, or if these values are harmful, immoral, unethical or simply silly. If it’s what they value, and you deliver to those values, you will make money.

So what do today’s food consumers value? One view is these values, at least when it comes to food, have taken on many of the trapping of religion. The concept is brilliantly summed up in an illustration of the “Hipster Jesus” by Brice Hall in the National Post, complete with buzz phrases like “ethically sourced,” “free range,” and “grass fed.” Against such belief, science and fact often contend in vain.

Earl’s was pitching to the new believers – not a bad strategy considering the big numbers being posted by A&W. But this time, farmers and their allies found their voice. It was loud enough to be heard, and to force a change.

It’s something farmers need to remember as agriculture comes under increasing pressure to adjust production practices not based on science, but ideology. This may coerce farmers to adopt less efficient practices that actually increase impact on the environment – something that runs counter to all of our values.

Agriculture needs advocates, and the best, most credible voices are farmers themselves.



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