Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadians love local, especially on our plate

Loyalty top motivator for consumer choices

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It's only been nine years since the BSE crisis in Canada prompted Toronto food writer Anita Stewart to launch what is now celebrated as Food Day Canada every August long weekend.

When export markets for Canadian beef slammed shut in 2003 after the discovery of an Alberta cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Stewart initiated what was called the World's Longest Barbecue, a challenge for Canadians to show their moral support for the country's beef producers by throwing a steak or burger on the grill.

The idea of celebrating Canada's culinary culture caught on. The event expanded its menu and quickly became annual. Governments bought in with messages of support and now chefs are stepping up with special menus to serve those who prefer to wave the flags -- poking out of their cocktails -- while someone else does their nationalistic grilling. Even bankers are taking note, conceivably as a means of forging a closer connection to their customers through food.

And it was just over seven years ago that Vancouverites Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon began their now-famous year of eating locally.

The authors of the non-fiction bestseller The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating made it their mission to spend one year of eating only foods they could source from within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of where they lived.

The project forced them out of the supermarket and into farmers markets and on to local farms. It also changed how they ate.

Little did they know their experiment, scoffed by many as a passing fad, would form the origins of a local food movement now firmly entrenched in Canadian culture. True, few consumers can honestly say they practise such a strict diet and, to be fair, that's a lot easier to accomplish in a place like Vancouver than, say, Winnipeg or Swan River.

But there is hardly anyone these days who doesn't factor the concept of local eating into how they purchase food, whether by visiting a farmers market a few times a summer, stopping at a roadside vegetable stand or shopping for Canadian meat products. Some studies suggest the concept of local has even more cachet with the consumer than traditional niche values-driven markets such as organic.

A new survey released by BMO Financial Group in advance of Food Canada Day confirms most Canadians seek out local products when they shop for groceries. What's more, they are willing to pay a premium to put local food on the table.

"BMO research suggests that Canadians are becoming increasingly loyal to the notion of buying local food, particularly fruits and vegetables, cheese, beef and poultry. Consumers appreciate the quality of food produced by local farm families and recognize the importance of supporting an agricultural sector that accounts for one in eight jobs in Canada," said David Rinneard, national manager, agriculture, BMO Bank of Montreal.

On average, Canadians are willing to pay 16 per cent more for domestic fruits and vegetables and 19 per cent more for Canadian meat products, the survey found.

There's more good news in this for farmers. Twenty-eight per cent of survey respondents cited supporting Canadian producers as their primary reason for buying Canadian food, which was by far the biggest driver.

Not many other industries can boast that kind of customer loyalty. Consumers typically shop for quality of products they like at the price they want to pay, regardless of the origins. And few would voluntarily pay more for any other product of similar or equal value just because it was made in Canada.

Fourteen per cent of survey respondents cited freshness, 10 per cent cited the environment and nine per cent cited safety.

The study also found Canadians are most likely to buy Canadian food products when grocery shopping for vegetables (91 per cent), fruit (86 per cent), poultry (84 per cent), cheese (81 per cent), and beef (78 per cent).

Granted, poultry and cheese are supply-managed commodities, which may skew the results somewhat. To shelter Canadian producers, imported dairy and poultry products are subject to prohibitively high tariffs, which reduces the volumes available on the Canadian market. But it's interesting the support is just as high for non-supply-managed sectors such as vegetables, fruit and beef.

Results like these challenge the long-held view by farm groups of "the consumer" as a homogenous entity that cares only about acquiring cheap food.

Food is something people care passionately about, and they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Happy Food Day Canada.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 B6

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