The Meat We Eat
Canadian meat producers prepare to face new existential challenges unleashed by changing demographics and global trade and supply-chain turbulence
As the largest sector of Canada’s diverse food manufacturing industry, the country’s meat processors’ collective contribution to our everyday economic and nutritional health and well-being often tends to be taken for granted as a divine right in the public policy discourse.
And while that may be a case of an industry paying the price of its own success, there is a lot to be said for the value of industry organizations like the Canadian Meat Council (CMC) for providing invaluable guidance, advocacy and visibility for this critically important driver of Canadian economic growth and prosperity.
Celebrating its centennial anniversary this month, the Ottawa-based organization has made many important contributions over the last 100 years to help make Canada become the 11th-largest meat exporting country in the world—ranking third for pork exports and seventh-largest for beef—while also developing a buoyant domestic market for quality beef, pork, veal, lamb, bison and other red-meat products.
Currently headed by president and chief executive officer Chris White, CMC represents the vast majority of Canada’s federally inspected meat packers and processors, accounting for over 90 per cent of all the meat processed in Canada.
“Red meat production and exports are a large and high value-added component of our agri-food sector,” White states, adding the $20-billion industry supports over 288,000 full-time jobs across Canada.
“Canada exports about 70 per cent of its pork production and 50 per cent of its beef production to more than 90 countries,” White points out, “significantly contributing to the health of rural communities and the broader Canadian economy.”
Generating over $8.3 billion in export sales and $12.7 billion in domestic revenues in 2020, the red meat by products also generated $10.1 billion for industrial use annually, according to CMC.
All in all, CMC estimates that the meat processing sector generates about $6 billion in tax revenue each year for the federal, provincial and local governments across Canada.
As White relates, the Canadian meat industry’s rise to global prominence and renown has not been an overnight success, but rather a continuous concerted effort by the meat industry at large to diversify its markets and improve its competitiveness.
International trade has increased enormously in the last 50 years,” White points out. “In the 1970s, Canada was exporting red meats and meat products almost exclusively to the U.S.
“And while the U.S. is still and will continue to be one of Canada’s major trade partners, Canada has reached a large market diversification, thanks to CMC advocacy work in conjunction with other trade associations.
“Today, the Canadian meat industry is globally recognized on a foundation of on-farm food safety, responsible animal care, mandatory traceability, and some of the highest food safety standards in the world,” White asserts.
“With our numerous decades of export success, the Canadian meat industry supplies high-quality meat to offer an exceptional dining experience for consumers around the world.”
According to White, the meat industry’s largely effective response to the marketplace chaos unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the industry’s fundamental resilience and competitive strength.
As White relates, “The COVID-19 outbreak had a devastating effect on the food-processing industry in Canada.
“With food production being declared an essential service, it was imperative that the industry provided the necessary investment to ensure production could continue, while foremost providing the necessary protection of our employees and their families.
“There was no play-book for this,” White states, “so it was a learn-as-you-go situation.
“But the industry pulled together and shared best practices to come up with recommended procedures to address the safety concerns needed,” says White, citing “major investments” to acquire and install plexiglass barriers between plant workers, provide personal protection equipment (PPE) and face-masks to the employees, and implement enhanced sanitation measures.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, some establishments faced major outbreaks,” White acknowledges, “and this caused a backlog in slaughter capacity.
“However, the industry rallied and the backlog was soon recovered—bringing the slaughter capacity back to near-normal numbers.
“Once the protocols with the local public health authorities were established, systems were in place to self-monitor and isolate infected workers,” White continues.
“And as soon as vaccines became available, establishments provided on-site clinics to vaccinate the workers who wanted them.
“This soon created a more manageable process, and while COVID did not go away, a ‘New Normal’ was established,” says White, pointing out that none of major Canadian grocery retailers, or Canadian consumers, had been exposed to prolonged or severe shortages of meat during the two years of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns across the country.
Says White: “During the peak of the pandemic when there was uncertainty and backlogs, providing food to Canadians was the Number One priority and exports came second.
“This created a temporary drop in exports but that soon recovered, and trade volumes eventually returned to normal.
“Our essential workforce kept us fed through this pandemic with minimal impact across the grocery store meat counters,” White states, “while Canadian consumers maintained their confidence in the quality of Canadian meat products.”
But whether that confidence transcends into long-lasting loyalty in terms of domestic meat consumption remains an open question, considering the changing domestic demographics and the troublesome global trade disruptions and supply-chain challenges.
Moreover, the global meat industry as a whole has been on a receiving end of a massive environmentalist backlash demonizing meat production as one of the greatest contributors to global warming and climate change.
Although White says that the anti-meat resentment based on environmental grounds is often deliberately over-exaggerated, he does acknowledge the need for the Canadian meat industry to continue improving its environmental performance.
“The development of the meat industry in Canada is an ongoing process that continues to evolve,” White states.
“Livestock production, particularly in the meat sector, will be more put under immense pressure and scrutiny by advocacy groups identifying livestock production as the main culprit of global warming,” he says.
“However, although it is not the main culprit of global warming, livestock production has experienced relevant adaptations to mitigate its impact.”
As White points out, producing one kilogram of beef today requires 17 less water and 40 per cent less feed than 50 years ago, while producing 15 per cent less GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
Similarly, producing a kilogram of pork requires 40 per cent less water and 33 per cent less feed than 50 years ago, with 15 per cent less GHG emissions.
For its part, a kilogram of poultry meat production uses 45 less water and requires 33 per cent less feed, according to White, while generating 19 per cent less GHG emissions.
“At the meat-processing level, different companies have implemented numerous environmental initiatives and programs to reduce their environmental footprint,” White points out.
“Some companies reported reducing electricity consumption by 24 per cent, process water usage by 16 per cent, and solid waste by 22 per cent,” he reveals.
“Despite all these green advances, the Canadian meat industry is aware that more adaptation is needed—from livestock to retailers—to become more sustainable, to meet consumer demands, and to procure food for the growing population,” he states.
White says the CMC is in the process of completing a major sustainability study and report—covering meat packaging and other vital environmental issues—that it plans to release to its membership and the government to help guide future policies that are critical to the sector’s viability and competitiveness.
For all that, White says the Canadian consumers are already a privileged lot by having access to the safest meat products produced anywhere in the world.
“Food safety is the Number One priority for CMC and its members,” White states. “The collaborative work between industry and the regulators has placed Canada in the highest ranks in the World Ranking of Food Safety Performance.
“A report released by the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Food in Canada and the Food Institute of the University of Guelph showed that among the 17 countries evaluated having remarkably high food safety standards, Canada and Ireland in particular earned excellent grades relative to their peers.”
For CMC’s chairman of the board Sylvain Fournaise, “The meat industry views the environment, as well as food safety, as non-competitive issues.
“Thanks to the CMC, we are privileged in Canada to have very open exchanges between the different companies on these issues and to be able to discuss best practices,” says Fournaise, vice-president of food safety and technical services at leading Quebec-based pork and poultry products manufacturer Olymel LP.
“During various exchanges, I am able to see very good initiatives to reduce energy consumption, to avoid wasting water, to recover wastewater, to reduce packaging, to introduce more recyclable packaging, etc.,” Fournaise says, stressing that reducing the industry’s packaging footprint is a key priority for Olymel and most of its industry counterparts in Canada.
The trick is to make happen without compromising consumer safety and the industry’s reputation for high product quality, according to Fournaise.
“We are taking our social responsibility seriously when it comes to packaging,” says Fournaise. “We are constantly trying to reduce the weight and the impact of packaging.
“Some of those changes, like printing our Olymel brand frozen-meat boxes with water-based inks or switching from corrugated boxes to recyclable plastic crates for shipping products between our plants, may not be immediately visible to the consumers, but it all makes a big difference in terms of the overall environmental impact.
“From what I have seen, the vast majority of meat industry in Canada is working very hard to reduce the amount of packaging waste it generates,” Fournaise adds, “but we still need to preserve the product safety and freshness that Canadian consumers expect.”
Happily for Canadian meat processors, the country’s leading packaging manufacturers and suppliers have shown great willingness and competence in providing the sector with more sustainable packaging alternatives, including recyclable and PCR-content plastic materials that are so critical to preserving product shelf-life.
“We need to be very innovative in how we work with our packaging partners going forward,” Fournaise says, “but we already have a very good relationship with the Canadian packaging community, and I expect it to only get stronger in the future.”
For all that, the industry’s impressive track record on food safety and commitment to more eco-friendly production and packaging are no guarantee of continued open access to foreign markets, White notes, which are also critical to the industry’s long-term viability.
As the third-largest exporter of pork products in the world, the country’s pork industry is especially vulnerable to forces beyond it control, White explains, citing the global outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) and its devastating impact on global trade flows.
While Canada has been fortunate to escape the global spread of ASF so far, its far-reaching effects are already being felt through the global supply chain, according to White.
“Canada is the most export-dependent country in the world, with about 70 per cent of its pork production being exported,” White says.
“An outbreak of ASF in Canada would immediately result in trading partners closing their markets and causing a price collapse—given the massive back-up in the number of hogs that would be unable to move through the supply chain.
“It would mean mass depopulation of 50 per cent of the herd, and the layoffs of 50 per cent of skilled workforce working in the pork plants,” he warns, estimating a $2 billion loss in revenues for the pork industry in the first year of the outbreak.
“Prevention, response, and business continuity activities are essential to maintaining the economic activity and protecting all the jobs created by the pork industry,” White states.
“It would also be critical to financially support skilled employees in meat plants that would need to be laid off during the crisis,” he points out, “so that they can be available to return back to work when the crisis has passed.”
Adds Fournaise: “I am very proud of all the work accomplished by CMC in prevention and in preparation for an outbreak of ASF in Canada.
“Both the CMC and several members are directly involved in several working groups with the federal and provincial governments—enabling a much greater awareness of the issue amongst government authorities.”
According to White, maintaining a skilled workforce and replenishing it with new talent remains one of the top existential challenges facing the Canadian meat industry going forward.
“There is nothing temporary about jobs in our sector,” White asserts. “We offer full-time, year-round jobs, yet our sector needs to use a Temporary Foreign Worker (TFWP) program.
“We agree that prioritizing jobs for Canadians is important, which is why our meat processing companies participate in ongoing advertising, recruitment fairs, and always hire Canadians first, only using the TFWP as a last resort.
“But despite the increased recruitment efforts, our sector still has a vacancy rate of between 20 to 30 per cent,” White laments.
“This is unacceptable for our meat processing companies—putting their viability in potential jeopardy,” says White, adding that the CMC is working on a two-year National Workforce Strategy to address the industry’s systemic labor issues that can’t be resolved through technology and automation alone.
“Manual labour will always be a part of our sector,” White acknowledges, “but the fact is that automation, which is adopted for good reasons, is more likely to be sustainable and have a good economic return.
“Investing in equipment to make cutting faster and safer, for example, makes sense,” says White, “especially when it helps end users meet the demand for specialized cuts and products.
“Safer and more consistent product, processed more safely by workers, represents a win-win all the way around,” White says, adding he’d like to see the federal government prioritize financial funding assistance for firms seeking to make large capital investments in automation.
Says White: “Greater access to government innovation funding would speed up the adoption process, given there is often risk and large capital expenditures involved, as well as plant downtime and human resources that tend to slow the willingness to adapt.”
As White and Fournaise agree, being able to adapt to changing market conditions and demographics will provide a formidable test of the Canadian industry’s resilience and competitiveness in coming years—especially with the growing popularity of alternative plant-based protein products and the overall market trend towards less meat consumption.
While Canada’s current per-capita annual meat consumption of 87.8 kilograms seems like a healthy industry indicator, it is considerably below the peak of 98.6 kilograms recorded in 1999, according to market research firm IBISworld.
Moreover, the last decade also saw the rapid emergence of chicken as the Canadians’ preferred meat of choice—largely at the expense of beef producers.
Last year, Canada’s per-capita beef consumption was estimated at 28.1 kilograms per person—compared to 38.8 kilograms in 1980—representing a continued downward trend in the beef sector.
On the flip-side, Canada’s per capita consumption of chicken has risen by to 34.5 kilograms in 2020—about nine kilograms more than in 1998.
“While I think it’s normal for young people to diversify what they’re eating and to try out new things, I think that red meat will remain an important part of the plate well into the future,” Fournaise states.
“It may no longer be the centerpiece of the plate,” Fournaise acknowledges, “but it’s up to the industry to make sure that we are offering products that meet the needs of the new generation, and to do it using the best farming and processing practices available to us.”
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