Gluten strength improving, but customers remain concerned

After some recent soul-searching, Canada’s wheat industry seems intent on 
restoring its reputation for quality and consistency

Canadian bread-making wheat, once considered the world’s best, is selling at a discount to American and Australian wheat, according to some southeast Asian customers.

Thanks to a shift in varieties, Canadian wheat quality has improved since 2013 when some customers complained about low gluten strength in the Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) class.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Grain Commission says its new proposal to overhaul Canada’s wheat class system will help put CWRS back on top. Nevertheless, there was some soul-searching about Canada’s ability to meet customers’ expectations at the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale’s (PRCWRT) recent annual meeting here.

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Grain transportation delays are partly to blame for weaker Canadian wheat prices, “but we definitely heard (during a recent trade mission) from particular buyers that CWRS quality and consistency has lacked over the last number of years…,” Daryl Beswitherick, the CGC’s program manager for quality control, told the meeting.

“It (CWRS) was up to $60 a tonne under DNS (U.S. Dark Northern Spring),” Beswitherick said later in an interview. “My understanding was at one time (CWRS was) about $10 above DNS, so it’s a pretty big (difference).”

Recent published reports also say Canadian wheat was selling at a discount to U.S., raising eyebrows and questions.

“I know selling CWRS to Italy… has completely gone down because of quality issues in the past number of years,” said Elaine Sopiwynk, the Canadian International Grains Institute’s director of science and innovation. But she added that durum sales there remain strong.

Bakers value consistent gluten strength because it produces uniform loaves without adjusting equipment.

Variety balance improved

Randy Dennis

Randy Dennis, the Canadian Grain Commission’s chief grain inspector, says consistent Canadian wheat quality is not something relegated to a bygone era.
photo: Allan Dawson

“Even with all the downgrading factors we had, this year’s crop gluten strength was better than 2013 and 2012,” Beswitherick said, largely because farmers are growing less Harvest, Lillian and Unity varieties, which have gluten strength near the bottom of what’s allowed in the CWRS class.

In 2012 those varieties accounted for a third of Western Canada’s wheat acres, but just 22 per cent in 2014. Acres are expected to decline again this year.

“You see those acres are going down and acres of other varieties with stronger gluten strength going up so it fixes the problem a bit,” Beswitherick said.

Still, Harry Sapirstein, a cereal chemist at the University of Manitoba, is concerned. “I see it as a big challenge,” he said. Despite the introduction of tighter class specifications, there’s still variability because of different growing conditions across the West.

“I think it’s also a bit of a misnomer that we can deliver a very, very consistent ingredient to these guys all over the world when it’s grown from Steinbach to High River,” said Peter Entz, Richardson International’s assistant vice-president of seed and traits. “We’re always going to have to deal with a range of product. It’s a matter of narrowing it down a bit so it’s acceptable.”

Trade missions give buyers a heads-up so they adjust, he added.

“But I think to say that we consistently grow a type of product across the whole country, I think is really not achievable, but we can get better at it.”

Consistency factors

Did Western Canada ever produce consistent-quality wheat, or was it a market-promotion-fuelled myth?

“We were probably a little better at it at one time,” Entz said in an interview.

But things changed. Years ago one wheat — AC Barrie — accounted for nearly half of the West’s production.

“So that in itself made for consistency right off the hop,” he said.

Smaller farms, more and smaller elevators and short trains from branch lines meant more wheat mixing at export terminals and greater homogeneity.

The Canadian Wheat Board played a role, pulling grain from various parts of the West and blending at port, said Glenn Tait, a director with the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission. It saw the big picture, but now companies work independently, he said.

More grain storage, preferably at port, might be part of the solution, Eric McLean, an Oak River, Man., seed grower told the meeting.

“Storage allows us to keep some good (wheat) and sell some bad every year to make sure we never get caught with too much bad and too much good,” he said. “We’re giving the good away every year and… take a $100-a-tonne hit every year like we do now.”

Some predicted Canadian wheat quality would decline with the removal of the wheat board’s monopoly, but complaints about gluten strength predate the board’s demise.

The CGC says it’s steadfast in its commitment to quality.

“It’s our intent and responsibility and the industry’s responsibility to have a consistent product going to the end-users,” CGC chief grain inspector Randy Dennis said in an interview, adding consistency is not just for a bygone era.

“There are concerns, absolutely, but (customers) know what Canada has produced in the past. They know what the intent is — to be able to deliver the product that they are expecting in a timely manner.”

Canada has a good wheat quality control system, Entz said, including assessing new wheats before registration. Some see the system as a roadblock to innovation. But the gluten strength complaints demonstrate problems can still occur despite a lot of oversight. What would happen if there was none?

“Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” Entz said. “Can we make it better? Absolutely, but we do need something. Second to that, we have a sterling reputation. We have a great brand in Canada and let’s not screw it up.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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