Grain quality oversight must involve farmers

Customer complaints about Canadian wheat quality are a concern, but they were to be expected as this country negotiates an enormous change in its wheat marketing and sales system.

The situation can be fixed through better communication between seller and buyer and changes in wheat grading, which are already under discussion.

The chances of success will increase if the industry recognizes that Canada’s marketing system ranges all the way from the farmers who grow the wheat to the millers, bakers and people who consume it.

Here is the problem: several international wheat buyers have voiced concerns about what they see as shortcomings in Canadian wheat since the end of the CWB monopoly.

The complaints range from underweight shipments and contamination with other grain types to lower-than-expected protein content and gluten strength.

The complaints are far from widespread, but for a wheat exporter proud of its reputation of superior quality and customer service, they are troubling.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Several developments help explain what is happening, starting with bad weather at harvest, which downgraded wheat crops.

Canadian wheat exporters have a range of sizes and geographic spread, but none can claim the complete coverage of the old monopoly CWB, which could draw on grain from every part of Western Canada. This gave it the ability to draw grain from various regions and make sure it was best suited to match a customer’s needs.

The rail logistics shortfalls of the last two years compounded this problem, and Canadian Grain Commission changes might also have contributed to the issue.

And perhaps the biggest culprit is the fact that since late 2012, exporters have had the option to certify a cargo based either on the composite vessel sample or from each incremental 2,000-tonne load.

The incremental approach helped guarantee a uniform quality throughout the ship’s load, but it was slow and costly.

Composite loading is cheaper and quicker but allows deviation from specifications, so long as the composite sample from the whole vessel meets the requirements.

It means quality can vary between each of a ship’s holds, which appears to have been inadequately communicated to buyers who might, in the past, have become used to getting better than expected quality from CWB as it worked to win market share from competitors.

Exporters are correct to say they should not give away quality by routinely exceeding contractual requirements. However, they must also follow up with millers and bakers to ensure they are getting what they want.

Problems with low gluten levels will be addressed with plans to tighten Canada Western Red Spring wheat criteria and shift varieties with weaker gluten to a new category.

It is comforting that existing agencies, including the grain commission, the Canadian International Grains Institute, exporters and new bodies such as Cereals Canada and provincial wheat commissions, are adopting a Team Canada approach to communicate directly with customers.

Farmers must have a strong voice on this team because it is their hard-won reputation and income that are on the line. Grain companies are only the middlemen and must be monitored.

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