Ranchers applaud Earls president's apology for snubbing Canadian beef

CALGARY – The president of the Earls restaurant chain entered the lion’s den on Wednesday to apologize for its “dumb” strategy last spring to snub Canadian beef in favour of a U.S. supplier.

Mo Jessa took to the stage at a beef industry conference in Calgary to say the Vancouver-based company now knows that it deeply offended the Canadian cattle industry in April when it announced it would buy all of its beef from an American supplier that had a “Certified Humane” designation.

The move prompted outrage and threats of a boycott in Western Canada and forced Earls to sign supplier deals in June with Canadian ranchers who raise cattle without antibiotics, steroids or added hormones and who are regularly audited for animal welfare.

“I came here to acknowledge that we offended the beef industry in Canada, there’s no question about it,” said Jessa, as an audience of hundreds of delegates applauded.

“That was a dumb decision and, if we’re going to be around, if Earls is going to be successful, we can’t afford to make dumb decisions.”

He said the chain decided to switch after surveying customers and staff and finding concern about ethical use of farm animals. He added Earls managers also thought it was a good idea to have one-stop shopping for the chain’s beef.

When news of the decision broke, there was an immediate negative impact on sales — as high as 30 per cent in some restaurants in rural areas of Alberta, said Jessa — but activity recovered within a few days to normal levels.

He said the media firestorm was felt by Earls staff ranging from dishwashers to executives.

“The morale or moral impact, the confidence impact, the feeling of embarrassment that Albertans and Canadians found us arrogant and selfish, had a massive impact in the company because we want to be a loved brand,” he said.

Alberta Beef Producers chair Bob Lowe, a fourth-generation cattle rancher and feedlot operator, said he was angry when he heard Earls was sourcing its beef in the United States but he has talked to Jessa often since then and accepts his apology.

“I think because of the little flub on Earls part, and the way they handled it, and we take some responsibility, too, as an industry, there are going to be great things coming out of it,” he said.

He noted the cattle industry must continually work to earn its social licence by proving to consumers their animals are well cared for and their products are safe, rather than simply insisting they already produce humane meat.

Jessa spoke as part of a panel discussion on beef demand. The conference, which runs until Friday, is the inaugural event for a partnership of four national Canadian cattle associations promoting a reinvigorated beef marketing strategy. Organizers said the event was sold out, with 650 delegates registered.

Panellist Sam Heath, vice-president of marketing for Tim Hortons in Canada, told the conference the company famous for breakfast and coffee is conducting market research to try to grow its lunch and dinner options, which will include promoting beef dishes.

He said Tim Hortons is aware of the success A&W has had with marketing claiming its unique use of cows raised without the use of hormones or steroids, but hasn’t decided if that is the way it will go.

If it does, he said, the company will be looking for suppliers who can meet its standards, while preferably maintaining its sources in Canada.

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