A so-called “bacon centre of excellence” is coming to Winnipeg.
Manitoba’s minister of agriculture used the phrase to describe a planned expansion of Maple Leaf Food’s bacon plant in Winnipeg during a Growing Forward 2 funding announcement last week.
“This is one of my favourite products… and I know our customers to the south certainly enjoy it as well,” said a jovial Ralph Eichler, before praising the role Manitoba’s pork industry has played in the province’s economy.
“Maple Leaf foods is an important player in the hog industry in Manitoba; there are over 3,300 employees in the province,” he said, noting the communities Brandon, Winnipeg, Souris, Landmark, Niverville, Arborg and Winkler have benefited in particular.
Together, the federal and provincial governments are contributing $500,000 to the bacon line expansion project, while Maple Leaf’s investment is valued at about $5.9 million. Once complete, the expanded bacon line will employ an additional 68 people, half of which will be full-time employees.
“There are a lot of people whose jobs depend on the production and the export of the products you see here,” said Rory McAlpine, senior vice-president of government and industry relations for Maple Leaf Foods. He added that roughly 1,400 individuals are already employed at the Winnipeg processing plant.
“All those employees are very much the beneficiaries of the investment and the confidence the government has placed by providing this assistance,” said McAlpine. “This plant has got a great history and is moving up the ladder of technology and productivity with each of these investments and it’s something that we’re very, very proud of.”
The upgrades will push the plant’s bacon production upwards by eight million kilograms per year, to a total of 48 million kilograms per year.
Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay emphasized the funding will help keep the plant on the cutting edge of technology, while also positioning the hog sector to take advantage of growing export opportunities. Canadian pork exports are currently valued at $3.5 billion per year.
“These are impressive numbers, but we all know they could even be higher,” said MacAulay. “Global demand for protein is growing and we know our industry can grow to meet that demand. That’s why the federal government committed to working hard to support Canada’s pork industry through investment and innovation and a strong focus on trade.”
Manitoba Pork Council president George Matheson was also on hand for the funding announcement, which was held at the Winnipeg processing plant.
“A strong pork production sector of course relies on a strong processing sector, so if the processing facilities have grown… it can only mean good things for the pork producers of Manitoba,” said Matheson.
More hogs needed
McAlpine also took the event as an opportunity to note that Maple Leaf’s Brandon plant is still seeking an expanded supply of hogs.
“Right now that plant is running between 65,000 and 75,000 hogs a week, and we’d like to get it up to 90,000 or more, which we could do quite efficiently,” he said. “What we would love to see is more hog production… We would welcome new investment in hog production to get the numbers back to where they were when that plant was expanded, but meanwhile we’ve got enough supply to keep this plant running very efficiently.”
McAlpine also added that Manitoba’s hog industry is beginning to bounce back after a number of challenging years and he expects the supply of pigs will grow in the future. As that happens, Maple Leaf will also be seeking an increased labour pool.
“We’ve been quite successful… with the foreign worker program and we have retained and transitioned to permanent residency the influx of foreign workers that we hired when that plant was expanded,” McAlpine said. “Now having said that, we are always looking for labour… if we could get a higher hog supply, we could hire that many more and that is really our goal. But we are managing the situation now and looking forward to some changes to the foreign worker program.”