“Nobody else in the
world can do it – take the oil, put it in
a bottle and keep it
stable for the period of time that we can.”
– JIM DOWNEY
Ask Jim Downey, CEO of Brandon-based Shape Foods, why he’s so energized and the former deputy premier and Progressive Conservative MLA for Arthur, doesn’t hesitate: “Flax oil.”
Not only does Downey eat flax oil every day, he’s trying to get the rest of us to follow his lead.
While many of his former colleagues from his days in the Manitoba legislature in the 1980s and ’90s are semi-retired or retired snowbirds, Downey is busy chatting up people at Manitoba farm shows and seeking potential markets for Shape Foods’ edible flax oil and meal.
“There is a huge potential in this thing,” Downey said in an interview here after speaking at the Manitoba Flax Growers Association’s annual meeting here March 4. “I’ve always believed in value added. This (flax oil and meal) really excites me, particularly when you see what it does for your health. This can actually lower the health costs of the country phenomenally if people start to get regimented on this.”
Shape Foods, which was founded in 2006, went into voluntary receivership in 2008, but was resurrected last July by Downey and three other investors.
Dur ing the lunch break Downey passed out bottles and urged flax farmers to try some of the oil that he says is good for the heart, reduces blood sugar in diabetics and reduces the risk of cancer. Downey said flax oil also eases arthritis, including his own.
“This product is phenomenal and you people are growing the product we have to have to make it,” he said.
The benefits of flax are more than anecdotal. Researchers, including Dr. Grant Pierce at the St. Boniface Research Centre, are proving it, Downey said.
Flax oil is high in omega-3 fatty acid – a healthy oil. It’s also found in fish but with wild stocks depleting and concerns about mercury contamination, flax has an edge in the market.
And so does Shape Foods, according to Downey. Bill Vincent, who founded the company, developed a unique process for producing flax oil that can sit on a shelf for two years without going rancid. (Once the bottle is opened the oil must be refrigerated.)
“We have state-of-the-art technology,” Downey said.
“Nobody else in the world can do it – take the oil, put it in a bottle and keep it stable for the period of time that we can.”
And while Shape Foods buys only high-quality, non-genetically modified, clean, 99.9 per cent pure flax, any trace of a water-soluble pesticide is removed during processing.
“So basically without having organic seed we have a product that is natural and can actually be claimed not to have any influence of chemicals,” he said.
Downey stressed, however, farmers must be careful with the products they apply. Shape Foods’ customers want to trace the flax oil they buy back to the individual farmer’s field.
Shape Foods ran into trouble partly because it was producing a lot more oil than it was selling.
“They built to inventory,” Downey said. “That’s not a good way to go.”
This time production is based on orders, which helps cash flow, Downey said.
Despite the benefits of flax oil and meal – the meal can be used in baking – breaking into the food market is tough, Downey said. He has met with some of the biggest food companies in North America. They’re interested in flax oil, especially as a way to raise the level of omega-3 in their products, but companies are very cautious about altering major brands, he added.
“When the plant first started they thought they could only sell a bottle like that in New York for $9.99 retail,” Downey said. “When we took over the plant we found the people of Brandon and Manitoba didn’t mind paying $9.99 for it either. So our strategy is we won’t go to the U. S., we’ll introduce it into the Canadian market and that’s what we’re doing.”
While Shape Foods is staying out of the U. S. retail market for now, its oil could be in stores stateside through private labels.
Meanwhile, in Canada Shape Foods is working through a broker, but might also bottle for private labels.
“The U. S. market alone could absorb a plant seven times what ours can produce, but it’s going to take awhile to get it into the food stream,” he said.
Shape Foods has a modern 70,000-square-foot plant on 40 acres in Brandon that can fill 40,000 bottles (8,000 litres of oil) a day and package 13,000 kilograms of meal after pressing 50 tonnes of flax.
“The infrastructure’s in place to double the number of presses we have and we can bottle about five times what we’re able to bottle today,” Downey said.
Shape Foods is paying between $11 and $12 a bushel, but that’s for 99.9 per cent pure flax, which requires heavy cleaning, resulting in a slightly lower total return to the farmer because of a loss in volume.
When it comes to growing food-grade flax, Manitoba farmers are in a good position, Downey said. The farther north flax is produced, the healthier the oil, he said. The oil and meal produced from the flax grown here should be consumed as food, not used in paint and to feed livestock.
“The message is you people are growing the best crop for the human individual.” [email protected]