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Where’s the beef (from)? Fast food ad war irks ranchers

Cattle graze on dry land west of Medicine Hat, Alberta on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Dan Pahl, a local rancher operates a 30,000 acre cattle ranch with 750 beef cattle.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Beef "raised without the use of hormones or steroids," one fast-food chain touts in its commercials.

"Not Without Canadian Farmers," another burger giant boasts of its menu.

McDonald's has launched the latest salvo in a battle for the stomachs of food conscious Canadians with new ads that picture hamburger buns floating over an empty space where the patty should be. "The Big Mac? Not Without Canadian Farmers," it says.

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Prof. Sylvain Charlebois at the University of Guelph's Food Institute says he wouldn't be surprised if the new McDonald's ads are a response to a campaign from A&W. The home of mama and papa burgers started running commercials about two years ago that emphasize the chain only serves beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids.

The A&W ads have stirred up the ire of some in the beef industry, where producers use hormones to make cattle grow faster. Charlebois says one fast-food giant is trying to get closer to the farm gate and the other is focusing on the naturalization of food.

"They're trying to capitalize on the trust farmers actually have from the public," Charlebois says of the McDonald's ads. "Farming has a lot of currency in the marketplace. McDonald's, from time to time, has been criticized for several reasons and so trying to get closer to farmers only makes strategic sense for them."

On the other hand, he thinks A&W's campaign is brilliant, but what isn't clear is where its meat is coming from.

"They're not forthcoming about their procurement strategy at A&W. "They're mostly focusing on the naturalization of food. There's a lot of momentum around (that) ... and people are more concerned about farming practices. A&W is making their supply chain more transparent, not in terms of origin, but in terms of specific production practices." No one from A&W was available for comment, but the chain has said previously that it gets some beef from Canada, but also brings it in from the United States and Australia to meet the hormone-free guarantee.

McDonald's Canada says it gets 100 per cent of its beef from Canadian producers. That amounted to about 64 million pounds last year, says Sherry MacLauchlan with McDonald's Canada.

She says the company has been getting "more and more questions" about its beef.

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"Generally, consumer awareness is continuing to grow around sourcing and where things are coming from, so those things all tie together and really are the reason for the campaign."

Canadian ranchers say there's an innuendo that some beef isn't as good as other beef.

Doug Gillespie, president of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association, says the perception isn't fair. There are more hormones in cabbage than beef, he says.

The Beef Cattle Research Council notes on its website that producing the same amount of beef without hormones would require 12 per cent more cattle and 10 per cent more land, as well as more feed, water and fertilizer. The group says the added production costs would mean more expensive meat.

Gillespie, who ranches near Neville, Sask., says he hopes the McDonald's ads can reassure people.

"I hope they have a great belief in our standards and our way of doing things. We're very open about it. None of it is hidden and ... we need to convey the message that we have a very, very safe product.

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"We're proud of what we're doing and we have consumers foremost in our mind."

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