Alta. local food council calls for better branding, food hubs

Alberta’s former local food council has put forward a number of recommendations it says will help bolster the sector.

The recommendations were part of the council’s interim report, which was submitted in March 2019. The unreleased document was recently obtained by The Western Producer.

Within the report, the council provided seven recommendations. It was mandated by the former NDP government to find ways to boost the sector.

The recommendations include the development of a long-term awareness program, a local food and beverage alliance and a procurement policy, as well as support for the efficient movement of local food, the expansion of processing, the modernizing of regulations, and exemptions of some rules for border regions.

The council has developed a final report, but the government hasn’t made it public. The interim report said the recommendations might have been changed for the final report.

Susan Schaefers, co-chair of the former council, said in an interview she hopes the current United Conservative Party releases the report. The final report was submitted in October 2019.

She said it’s disappointing the report hasn’t been released.

“I was hoping that having it opened up to the public would show the kind of work that is being done on behalf of the local food industry and behalf of all the food producers,” Schaefers said.

“I’d say now more than ever, with the COVID-19 situation, it has highlighted the need and commitment people have toward local food.”

Schaefers said the council’s work was important, adding that she understands it might be difficult for government to implement all of the recommendations.

“I think our recommendations would go a long way in providing accessibility,” she said.

“It’s not just about having local food in front of people. It also centres around the logistics of getting food in areas, like the concept of food hubs. There are a lot of things that are important.”

Schaefers said she can’t release the final report because it’s not her’s to release. It was provided to the agriculture , whose role is to release it, she added.

In an email, ministry spokesperson Justin Laurence said the final report is being reviewed and the government is considering the recommendations.

In the interim report, however, the recommendations provide ideas that could advance the sector.

Agriculture is Alberta’s second largest resource-based industry, the report said, with farm cash receipts totalling $13.5 billion in 2016. Receipts for food and beverage manufacturing sales reached $14.5 billion in 2016.

As well, a previous government study has found that the market value of farmers markets reached $924 million in 2016, which is nearly quadruple what it was in 2004.

The study found that market value for products directly purchased from farms or ranches grew to $303 million, a 60 percent increase since 2004.

But in order to further expand the industry, the government will need to address current challenges, the report said.

For instance, it said Alberta could benefit from a local food awareness program.

It pointed to British Columbia’s Buy BC program and Ontario’s Foodland program as examples that Alberta could turn to. Statistics in Ontario show 89 percent of grocery shoppers recognize the Foodland Ontario logo and 83 percent of them intend to purchase local food.

It said Alberta has missed an opportunity by having no formal brand recognition program, recommending Alberta bolster its awareness efforts of local food.

Additionally, the council found there is no provincial local food and beverage organization.

It said the government should facilitate and encourage the development of a provincial local food and beverage alliance, which would provide a unified voice to consumers and take on an advocacy role.

As well, the council found smaller producers face regulatory barriers.

It said food safety and inspection requirements are inconsistent and don’t include cottage food businesses.

It said food safety is extremely important, but there are ways that the system could be adjusted that don’t jeopardize safety and that could make the system more efficient for everyone.

It recommended government harmonize food safety legislation and policies, as well as create new rules that support the cottage food industry.

Cottage food producers create home-based goods that are low risk, selling them directly to the consumer without being subject to food and safety regulations or inspections. Baked goods, for example, would be low risk.

Saskatchewan is the only province that has approved such sales for cottage producers.

NDP agriculture critic Lorne Dach said cottage food regulations should be further discussed with the public because it could raise some concerns.

However, he said he wonders if beef and pork production should become less centralized. Recent shutdowns and slowdowns of massive processing plants have exposed a weakness in the system, he added.

“Certainly we should look at regulations that might be inhibiting the smaller slaughterhouses from entering into a wider market,” he said.

“There might be efficiency losses, but there are benefits of more local production.”

In the report, the council said infrastructure for distributing local food around the province is inefficient and insufficient.

It recommended the government develop a map that shows where processing spaces are located, as well as find ways to leverage existing space in communities and ways to increase co-packing and mobile processing options.

It discussed the idea of food hubs, which could help local food producers meet demands and expand their businesses. Food hubs are spaces where industry comes together to help with marketing, aggregation and distribution of food products.

It recommended the government launch a pilot project to see how a food hub model could work.

Other recommendations include a local food procurement policy, in which government institutions source as much local food as possible. It said 50 percent is an achievable target.

It also wants the government to seek exemptions for Alberta producers and processors on border regions, which would allow them to access a greater market.

Dach said he’s disappointed the government hasn’t released the final local food report.

“Especially in light of people and their interest in local food, we couldn’t ask for a better time to release this and get the discussion going,” he said.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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