VANCOUVER - A decision by Earls restaurants to ditch Alberta beef in favour of hormone-free U.S. meat has prompted a swift backlash from cattle ranchers and online threats to boycott the Canadian chain.
The company announced this week that it would become the "first restaurant chain in North America" to serve only beef with the U.S.-based Certified Humane designation, raised without the use of antibiotics, steroids or added hormones.
"Earls has been working toward this humane designation for some time as part of the company's overall commitment to conscious sourcing," the Vancouver-based chain said in a statement.
Certified Humane is run by U.S. organization Humane Farm Animal Care and is not connected to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which has its own requirements for food labelling, humane handling and slaughter.
Earls said animals on Certified Humane ranches are "treated with care, respect and dignity from birth to pasture," while Certified Humane abattoirs are designed by animal-behaviour expert Temple Grandin, who specializes in "calm, low-stress environments."
The announcement incited anger on social media, with Opposition Wildrose party Leader Brian Jean and federal Conservative MP Jason Kenney jumping into the fray on Twitter. Scores of social media users threatened to boycott the chain.
Earls said on its website that it has always used Canadian beef for its hamburgers and steaks, two of its biggest-selling items. But as its commitment to "conscious sourcing" grew, it started searching for a Canadian supplier of Certified Humane beef.
"However, after months of trying, we were unable to source a federally-inspected, Certified Humane producer that could consistently meet our large supply needs," the chain said.
Dave Solverson of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said there is no equivalent certification in Canada, but there are many humane producers of beef in Alberta and the restaurant's implication that growth hormones are inhumane is "misleading marketing."
He said growth hormones allow ranchers to raise leaner cows and produce more sustainable beef. Fewer acres of land are required because cows convert food into muscle more efficiently and are ready to be slaughtered at a younger age.
There's no trace of the synthetic hormone left in the beef after the animal has been slaughtered, Solverson added.
"It's perfectly safe and I think there's a humane reason to use it," he said. "It's so much better for the environment."
Solverson said he only uses antibiotics on his ranch when animals get sick. Beef cattle standards posted on the Certified Humane also allow antibiotics to be used to treat diseases at the direction of a veterinarian.
Solverson said he's disappointed in the restaurant's decision but doesn't think it will impact the Alberta beef industry too badly because Canadian consumers trust local ranchers.
"There's a high level of trust that we're producing a wholesome product," he said. "I think (Earls') sales might be negatively affected because people possibly will boycott them."
The restaurant chain did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it has been replying to angry customers on Twitter with a promise to revisit the issue when a Canadian supplier can meet its criteria and large demand.
The chain's website says Earls has 64 restaurants, most of them in Western Canada.
Kenney, the MP for Calgary Midnapore and former National Defence Minister, tweeted to Earls that Canadian beef is produced humanely.
"It's locally sourced, and employs thousands of Canadians," he wrote on Thursday.
Earls responded, "We aren't saying it isn't produced humanely, supply meeting our criteria in Canada just isn't available at this time."