Sustainability a complex issue: economist

The angry reaction to a Canadian restaurant chain buying American beef is not a surprise, says a University of Alberta agriculture economist.

“They must have been getting some animal welfare flack or they would not be doing this,” said Ellen Goddard, who researches consumer behaviour and is the co-operative chair in agricultural marketing and business.

Earls Restaurants announced it was buying its beef from Creekstone Beef in Kansas because it could guarantee the product came from humane operations through a company called Certified Humane based in Virginia that offers independent inspections and certifications of livestock farms and processors.

Goddard’s research shows Canadians are concerned about animal husbandry standards but if they were asked to evaluate certain industries they probably would say they are more worried about the treatment of hogs or laying hens.

She said she believes Earls wanted a marketing edge in the highly competitive food service business. The company decided to focus on animal welfare to differentiate itself.

“Earls can do what they like if they want a marketing edge. I think the logo was important because it came with all this background and experience,” she said.

She is not sure how this could impact Earls in the longer term.

“My suspicion is certainly in Alberta they are going to notice this backlash but whether the people in B.C. are going to feel as strongly I don’t know,” she said.

Some of Goddard’s past research included a small survey on public attitudes towards the certified humane logo. Few recognized it but when told what the standards were, they supported it.

People want assurances that the food they eat is ethically raised and when they see undercover videos of abusive treatment of animals on farms they assume it is widespread.

“A logo helps them decide the products they want to buy that do satisfy their concerns. It sends a signal to them that they don’t have to feel uncomfortable about buying that product,” she said.

She said Earls probably knows the industry is developing sustainable standards and probably supports the Canadian industry but they wanted something to show their customers they were serious about a particular issue.

“The sustainable standards that the Canadian industry is developing is much broader than just animal welfare so it is going to be very complex for the consumer to understand all the issues the Canadian round table is developing,” she said.

The industry is doing everything right but the standards are complex and it will be some time before someone marketing beef can take advantage of it.

The Canadian roundtable for sustainable beef is expected to have its report ready next year.

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