By Kalinowski, Tim on January 18, 2020.
All eyes at Thursday’s 21st annual Tiffin Conference were on McDonald’s Canada Manager of Sustainability Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell.
The word was out in whispers and side conversations among the 400-strong crowd made up of mostly southern Alberta beef producers – McDonald’s Canada was testing a plant-based protein burger in Ontario.
McDonald’s, the stalwart champion of the Canadian beef industry, co-founder of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, was now going to be selling a PLT, a plant-based, lettuce and tomato Franken-burger.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell did not deny it, and instead looked these anxious ranchers right in the eye, took the proverbial bull by the horns, and said there were good reasons for doing so that made sound economic sense.
“We are a for-profit, customer-driven business,” he stated off the top, “and so I talk about kind of a teeter-totter where we have got to be responsible, but we also have to be responsive.”
He clarified the remarks a bit later, stating McDonald’s was absolutely 100 per cent dedicated to Canadian beef and beef producers, but there are certain customers who want the plant-based option. He revealed the plant-based concoction was currently being tested in 52 stores in “southwestern Ontario” without mentioning Toronto by name.
“Part of why we’re doing this is we have been told, on social media, from shareholders and franchisees, that McDonald’s should have this,” he explained. “Part of that responsiveness is we can’t say we don’t want to do it – we do have to explore it. But I have been really pleased as we have gone through this is how we are going to communicate the marketing, what we’re going to tell customers about it – right from the get-go there was a complete commitment there would be no comparison to beef. That we wouldn’t talk about animal care, environment, nutrition – everything we are talking about it is solely based on providing our customers with choice, and talking about the taste. There is no trying to drive people away from beef.”
While this didn’t sit entirely well with the Lethbridge Tiffin audience, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell highlighted the multi-million-dollar campaign his company launched last year which put Alberta beef producers and the importance of the livestock industry for native Prairie grassland sustainability at the forefront of consumers’ minds. And it did have a positive impact on those who saw the ads, he said.
He also spoke glowingly of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef which works with the beef industry to push for the highest sustainability standards for beef production found anywhere in the world.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell also promised McDonald’s planned to enhance its marketing efforts to ensure Canadian consumers, especially in urban Canada, understand that “if you’re concerned about climate change, and you want to do the best thing you can do for climate change today, please go eat some Canadian beef.”
That comment drew warm applause from the crowd.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell told farmers specifically to not feel pressured into being ag advocates if public communication is not your natural bent.
“Please focus on animal care, and please focus on raising what we believe is the highest quality, safest and most sustainable beef in the world,” he stated. “Just do that. That engagement with consumers … that’s our responsibility.”
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell’s talk left plenty of food for thought, but did not manage to convince anyone present plant-based, beef-flavoured protein substitutes were anything but a direct challenge, and possibly a threat, to the local beef industry, judging by the question-and-answer session comments later.
But that’s what makes the Tiffin Conference so compelling year after year, said organizing committee member Megan Shapka, who represented Lethbridge College at the event.
“We’re really trying to address those hot topics in the ag industry,” said Shapka, “and that’s why I think a lot of people are signing up to come and hear about these issues right in their own backyard.”
Besides Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, local entrepreneur Mike Davis of the Davis Auto Group as well as economists Al Mussell and Jayson Lusk, who specialize in Canadian and American trade issues, also delivered keynote speeches on Thursday.
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