Science and agriculture’s beef with A&W and its fear-based marketing

By in Ask an Agro/Opinions

We’ve all seen the A&W burger commercials — groups of hip-looking urbanites and baby-toting parents exclaiming in approval at the mention of “no added hormones or steroids.” This marketing tactic continues to frustrate much of the beef industry — ranchers and scientists alike.

Curious consumers deserve scientific facts about their food production. As the consistent link from farm to table, retailers have a responsibility to satisfy this consumer demand for information. A&W’s claims insinuate that there is something risky, unhealthy or untrustworthy about the use of steroid hormones in cattle production, without offering evidence or an explanation.

The beef that many have with A&W is its unabashed use of fear-based marketing that profits from misinformation and fosters mistrust in conventional beef. If expectations for transparency are increasing for farmers and ranchers, shouldn’t the companies marketing these products be held to the same standards? Shouldn’t buzzwords and misleading insinuations be questioned and evidence be demanded?

A&W promotes all-natural beef.

While other Canadian fast food chains like McDonald’s source 100 per cent Canadian beef, A&W sources its beef from ranches and feedlots in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. A&W claims that there is not enough Canadian beef that meets its added-hormone-free standards. The incentive of profitability may change this, as price premiums for “natural” beef exist, so the number of Canadian farmers raising qualifying beef is growing.

A&W’s beef is sourced from cattle raised without growth promotants, which includes hormone implants and feed additives called ionophores. Ionophores divert the microbial production in the cow’s first stomach, or rumen, to a type that increases feed efficiency and reduces methane production.

A hormone implant is a controlled-release pellet of steroid hormone inserted under the skin of an animal’s ear. This slow release of hormones into the bloodstream helps cattle convert feed into muscle more efficiently and is supported by fifty years of extensive research.

These technologies have aided in significantly reducing the environmental impact of feedlot cattle over the last several decades. Cattle raised with growth promotants reach market weight faster, use fewer resources and emit less greenhouse gases.

While natural beef may sound healthier, there is little evidence to support this. Hormones are naturally present in many plant and animal sources, and little of what is ingested is actually metabolized by the body. Relative to other foods, beef has very low steroid hormone content, and the use of growth promotants only marginally raises these levels. At 1.9 nanograms estrogen per serving, an adult female would have to eat 95 cows worth of beef every day to equal her own daily estrogen production.

Increased consumer interest in beef production is being embraced by the industry as an opportunity to showcase the benefits of beef. Sustainability is a big focus today, and the Canadian cattle production industry strives to meet the majority of the criteria. Focused consumer education on the role of science and technology is important and can contribute to having more well-rounded discussions on what sustainable cattle production truly means.

Fostering unfounded consumer distrust on the possible effects of hormones in food distracts from the real discussion that needs to happen — is removing growth promotants from beef production actually going to contribute to healthier or more efficient cattle production? Does this match up with what consumers want?

In December 2017, A&W generously donated $5 million to the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence. This donation reflects their noble commitment to the sustainability of Canadian beef and attempts at a partnership with Canadian agriculture. However, conversations about sustainability are needed in order to address the role of technology in beef production before many in agriculture would consider buying a Teen Burger again.

Janelle Smith

Photo: Riley Deacon / Photo Editor