For Michael McCain, the suggestion that Canada should become the world’s most trusted food system is a dangerous one.
“Higher cost — in our view — will never be universally valued,” he told industry stakeholders and policy-makers at the Forum on Canada’s Agri-Food Future in Ottawa. “Because our marketplace… isn’t homogenous, and that’s where the danger shows up.”
The president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods made the remarks in response to a provocative question asked at the recent forum hosted by Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI): Can and should Canada become the world’s most trusted food system?
McCain’s view was not representative of the diverse group of forum participants, but organizers said they were looking for people to challenge ideas presented and change the discussion around how Canada can excel on the world stage.
“We are not looking for consensus,” said the institute’s executive director, David McInnes. “The Canadian agri-food system is often described by what divides us, commodities versus value added, exports versus local or organic versus GMO-based agriculture, multinationals versus Canadian-owned, the list goes on… but there is a lot more that brings us together than perhaps we might think.”
That was a point McCain agreed with — there is much that binds Canada’s many agri-food businesses, producers and processors that they can collaborate on, but with commodity prices so often set by U.S. markets, Canadian companies need to stay competitive in real terms, no matter how trusted the food system is.
“We pay a formula price for our hogs, connected everyday to the U.S. market, and the vast majority of the meat we sell is in some way formula priced also to the U.S. market — competitiveness matters,” he said. “We can only afford in our industry to add value where individual customers or markets or consumers will pay for that value, and not everybody will.”
McCain also noted that Canada already has one of the most trusted food systems in the world and sets the bar for quality, sustainability and food safety.
“Going above and beyond those global best practices that exist today is a bridge too far,” he said.
He also challenged the thought of Canada competing on the basis of food safety.
“We do not as an industry compete on food safety, we’ve explicitly defined food safety as a non-competitive issue amongst players in North America,” said McCain.
Trish Sahlstrom, vice-president of purchasing and distribution for A&W, agreed.
“We should not be differentiating on food quality as it relates to trust of our food supply chain, those things should just be how we do business,” she said.
But there are areas where Canada can improve, Sahlstrom said. Responsiveness to consumer needs is one of these areas she added, referring to A&W’s own inability to source much of its product within Canada.
“Other countries were more than ready to step up,” she said. “Consumers’ ideas of food, their desires around food, have so significantly changed that we are out of step.”
That doesn’t mean Canadian agribusiness and farmers can’t get in sync, but it will take effort and co-operation, she said, adding that changes within Canada is the first step to changing how Canada is perceived in the world market.
McInnes noted that how people interpret and define the idea of trust will play a role in what visions people put forward for Canada’s agri-food system.
“Trust is immediately interpreted as being only about food safety, we have the safest food system already, we already work with global companies, global standards to ensure food safety, which is true, no one denies the importance of trust,” he said. “The concept is subjective, maybe it’s abstract.”
For Bill Buckner, a senior vice-president with Cargill, being the world’s most trusted food system is closely linked to reliability.
“Canada is a vast country, with very complex supply chains and a significant amount of our food is exported,” he said. “Canada must be able to ensure it has trade-enabling infrastructure to be able to deliver consistently to both our customers domestically and internationally.
“So to be successful in differentiating ourselves, we need to be agile, nimble,” he added.
For McInnes’s part, the forum represents the beginning of the discussion — not the end.
“When it comes to agri-food and Canada’s place, we are always looking to the future,” he said.