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Pork imports major problem in Canadian market

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Canadian pork is a big success overseas, which is a good thing because producers here are having a tough time getting their product on the shelf here at home.

“Right now, more than 25 per cent of the pork on Canadian store shelves comes from other countries,” says Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director at Alberta Pork. “Canadian content in the pork section of grocery stores is shrinking all the time.”

There are no barriers to slow the imports, which means other countries are welcome to flood the market. Fitzgerald says the problem is that competitors such as the U.S. carry lower regulatory burdens, lower taxation and lower employee costs, which means they can consistently undersell Canadian product. “It definitely does harm our industry when someone bigger can play the game longer. We often wonder if they can really make it at the prices they’re willing to sell their pork for,” says Fitzgerald.

International customers appreciate Canadian pork in a way that domestic consumers still need to develop. Currently, Canada exports 70 per cent of its pork production. Most of this exported product is marketing with country-of-origin labels. Overseas customers value and are willing to pay a premium for Canadian pork’s safety standards, and the top-quality taste and texture produced by Canada’s high-quality feed, excellent animal health, specific genetics, and highly regulated raising conditions. In the last five years, export sales have increased by almost a billion dollars, with export sales as reported by Canada Pork International topping $3.2 billion in 2011. Conversely, Canadian consumers “often can’t tell the difference (between domestically produced and imported pork), and generally buy based on price,” says Fitzgerald.

Unlike Canadian beef, which domestic consumers consider a premium product, and Canadian fruits and vegetables, which domestic consumers feel loyalty towards, Canadian pork is currently not differentiated in domestic consumers’ minds from imported pork. This is largely because Canadian pork is not required to be labelled any differently than imported pork, and packages of Canadian product are regularly mixed on grocery shelves with imported product, making it impossible for Canadian consumers to know where their intended pork purchase originated. While some grocery chains do label Canadian product, the labelling is sporadic at best. “If you surveyed people in the grocery store, most would think all the fresh meat products are Canadian. While we expect fruits and vegetables to be labelled as to where they come from, for some reason, we don’t expect this on our meat, and yet we should,” says Fitzgerald. “Canadian consumers should be asking for (domestic product) to be labelled. If it happens that Canadian product costs more than imported product, consumers should have the opportunity to decide if they are willing to pay the extra price to ensure they have a high-quality domestic supply in the future.”

Currently, the Canadian Pork Council is working to develop a domestic national labelling system for Canadian markets, which Fitzgerald hopes will roll out in the next year. Whether retailers will choose to implement the labelling system or not may depend on consumer demand.

Should Canadian consumers not step up in support of this country’s hog farmers, it is likely Canada will soon not have much of a hog industry at all. Fitzgerald guesses about two-thirds of Alberta pork producers have left the business in the past decade, and the breeding sow herd has dropped from about 220,000 in 2001-02 to about 120,000 today. “We’ve always had lots of food at our fingertips, but one day the reckoning will come that the farms have disappeared and what is grown here is exported out. We really need to cultivate the relationship between consumer and grower again. As a country, we really need to recapture the passion for food and enjoy the benefits of what is grown in our country,” says Fitzgerald.

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