Canadian brand easy sell in U.S.

The president of a company that produces cold pressed canola oil near Saskatoon says many American consumers want to buy food that comes from the Prairies.

“Safe food, a healthy climate and knowing where the food is coming from or produced … is very, very important to the consumer,” said Rick Pender of the Virtex Group of Companies, who recently attended a food show in Baltimore to promote the firm’s North Prairie Gold Extra Virgin Canola Oil.

Virtex Farm Foods, owned and controlled by 110 farmers in northern and central Saskatchewan, operates a canola crushing plant north of Saskatoon.

The farmers in the group, collectively known as North Prairie Family Farms, deliver Clearfield canola to the plant, where employees cold press the oilseed according to European standards and convert it to extra virgin canola oil.

Virtex launched North Prairie Gold in March at a health food show in Anaheim, California. The non-genetically modified certified product was on store shelves in June.

Pender said the extra virgin canola oil is sold at Federated Co-op stores in Canada and at health food stores in the United States.

Progressive Grocer, a food industry publication, recognized North Prairie Gold in September with its Editors’ Pick Award for best new products.

Virtex said North Prairie Gold is unique because cold pressing preserves the oil’s “abundant nutrients” and the oil is a good source of omega 3 and vitamin E.

Pender said the award will open many doors, but Virtex is also counting on its prairie roots.

“Our marketing team is out of the United States,” Pender said.

“They have indicated to us, from day one, make sure you (label) it as a product of Canada.”

Pender said health food buyers want to know where food originates. Many U.S. customers think of the Prairies as a place that produces safe and pristine food, he added.

“(We are) constantly talking about where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how healthy it is,” he said.

“People (Americans) may not know where Saskatchewan is … but they know the Canadian Prairies.”

Lee Anne Murphy, executive director of the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network, agreed the Prairies’ brand is known in the U.S. and many other parts of the world.

To leverage that identify, the health research network has developed a branding program called the Canadian Climate Advantage. Manitoba food products qualify for the program if they offer health benefits such as disease prevention and if the food is grown in a sustainable manner.

The network has applied the Canadian Climate Advantage label to about six of its food products, including pinto bean flour, milled flax flour and Snax, a puffy snack made from pulses.

“Right now, it’s on our own test market products,” she said.

“We will look for a company to go forward with the … product. Whether they carry the branding is clearly a commercial decision for them.”

However, she said branding prairie food is more than using images of open skies and green landscapes. Hard evidence is required to support a branding campaign

Part of the research network’s mandate is to foster the scientific research supporting the idea that food products and food ingredients from Western Canada have unique and healthful qualities.

“Most of the products we’re able to grow in the Prairies (such as flax, canola and buckwheat) … already have those inherit healthy elements we’re looking for,” Murphy said.

“(But) I’m more of the conservative side that says, ‘prove it.’ ”

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