Great Root Bear A+W Mascot at the Cruisin' the Dub annual public car gathering in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Great Root Bear A+W Mascot at the Cruisin' the Dub annual public car gathering in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Canadian cattlemen are upset with a new ad campaign launched by the fast-food chain A&W, which is touting its burgers as ‘hormone-free.’

My advice? Get used to it.

It might be a ways down the list of concerns for most consumers these days — especially if we’re talking about an unprompted response ... which is the only accurate way to judge what people really care about, by the way.

That said, the subject of hormone use in raising beef cattle still projects an almost entirely negative image for even the most loyal of meat-eaters. Consumers may not obsess over its use, but they sure don’t like it when they’re asked about it.

In fact, you’d have to search to find anyone who’d legitimately say that they like the use of hormones in livestock production, and that they appreciate the contributions such products make to society.

That reality is the rationale underlying a TV ad campaign going on in our northern neighbor that is touting the burgers sold at Canadian A&W restaurants as being hormone-free.

“We were hoping that we’d be able to be able to deliver on the product that most of our customers were asking about, which is beef without any added hormones or steroids,” Susan Senecal, chief marketing officer of A&W Food Services of Canada, told CBC News.

In September, A&W launched a series of television commercials and a new website featuring three of the ranches from which the chain sources its beef, including a profile of rancher Bern Kotelko’s operation in southern Alberta. In the ad, Kotelko explained that he doesn’t use “steroids or hormones.”

Yeah, I know. That’s like saying you’re not taking any “drugs or medicines.”

Rich Smith, the executive director of Alberta Beef Producers, admitted there is some consumer demand for beef with fewer hormones and no steroids. However, he said calling it “better” is misleading because ranchers use hormones in miniscule amounts, and thus the beef is safe for human consumption.

"We don’t think [hormone-free] is better beef,” Smith told CBC News. “We think it’s beef from cattle that are raised differently than the vast majority of cattle in Canada and the United States,” noting that the use of hormones has environmental benefits, because more cattle can be raised on less land.

He also explained that A&W has to source a significant percentage of its hormone-free beef from U.S. and Australian producers.

“We’re disappointed that a large Canadian food-service chain would launch a marketing campaign that has them serving significant amounts of imported beef to Canadians.”

Uh, you might want to give that last argument a rest, because hardly anyone cares about it.

Two paths to loyalty

Ironically, the cattlemen’s best friend in this dispute may be Ronald McDonald.

Back in 2013, Canadian McDonald’s operators ran a series of ads that pictured hamburger buns floating over an empty space where the beef patty should be. The punch line was, “The Big Mac? Not Without Canadian Farmers,” a direct slap at A&W’s reliance on imported beef to fulfill its no-hormones pledge.

Food industry observers noted that the two chains were taking different paths in addressing consumer concerns.

Professor Sylvain Charlebois, of the University of Guelph's Food Institute, told CBC News that McDonald’s strategy is to get “closer to the farm gate,” while A&W is focusing on “the naturalization of food.”

“[McDonald’s] is trying to capitalize on the trust farmers actually have from the public,” Charlebois said at the time. “Farming has a lot of currency in the marketplace, so trying to get closer to farmers makes strategic sense.”

He characterized A&W’s campaign as “brilliant,” but criticized the chain’s lack of transparency as to its source of hormone-free beef.

"They’re not forthcoming about their procurement strategy [at A&W],” he said. “They’re transparent — not in terms of origin, but in terms of specific production practices.”

Here’s my take.

Expect more marketing and advertising along the lines of A&W’s Canadian campaign. The majority of Canadians couldn't care less whether beef bears some maple leaf brand — like Made in Canada — at least in comparison with their concerns about the use of hormones. Imported food is a way of life for everyone in North America, and we’re not only tolerant of imports, in many cases we prefer them.

Belgian chocolate. Columbian coffee. French wine. All product categories with long-established quality and brand equity. And that’s not even counting all the imported cheese, liquor and produce we regularly drop into our collective shopping carts every week.

There’s some traction to be had in promoting locally grown food, of course, but the consumer niche attracted to local food is the exact same cohort that’s also strongly opposed to hormones and antibiotics.

McDonald’s can soft pedal the production practices associated with “conventional” beef, while ginning up boosterism for Canadian farmers. But in the end, all that does is (hopefully) maintain its current customer base.

Meanwhile, the A&Ws of the foodservice sector are targeting a younger demographic far more likely to assign its future loyalties on the basis of safety, not nationalism.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.