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Are traditionally Canadian products under threat?

Keith Moore watches over some of the boiling sap he uses to make maple syrup on his Lawrence County Savage Farms on Feb. 14, 2018 in Louisa, Ky. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Canada is far from precious with its national treasures: Tim Hortons opened up shop in New York in the mid-eighties, Smoke’s Poutinerie has more recently been pushing poutine on Americans, and the secret’s out on butter tarts with the New York Time’s Sara Bonisteel recently penning a 1,300-word ode to the Canadian treat.

For these products, the Canadian link is novel – the U.S. already has coffee chains, cheese-covered fries, and tarts – and therefore incorruptibly marketable. But other Canadian treasures like maple syrup and icewine face a very real threat.

Maple syrup producers in Quebec (which produced 72 per cent of the world’s maple syrup in 2016) have lost 10 per cent of the world’s market share over the past decade, falling from a high of producing 82 per cent of the world’s maple syrup in 2003, down to 72 per cent in 2016, according to the latest numbers from the Quebec Maple Syrup Federation.

But even with the province producing a majority of the world’s supply and controlling output through quotas, prices, authorized buyers and administrative fees, they’re overlooking the authenticity aspect, says Leonore Newman, author of Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey and a professor at the University of Fraser Valley whose research focuses in Canadian regional cuisines.

“Go to Vermont, the other big producer – they have very strict rules, not quite an appellation like you’d have for wine, but they have very strict rules for what you can call maple syrup,” she says. “We do not.”

A combination of good branding and appellation can do a lot for boosting a region’s products, she says.

France’s appellation system has helped convert regions into brands, says Newman, leading to agri-tourism. “We could do exactly the same things here… we are in tiny ways but we (could get better) at putting forward things on the world market as Canadian products.”

However, there are some good examples, like Canada’s icewine industry. The country is the world’s largest producer of icewine, which has to abide by standards developed by the Canadian Vintners Association in order to be called such.

Of course that doesn’t preclude U.S. producers from meeting those standards and selling their own version of icewine. But it does bolster Canada’s reputation, she says.

Wild rice: branding it uniquely Canadian

Another example of the power of regional branding is Canadian wild rice which is gaining popularity.

“Canadian wild rice is a great success story, it’s mostly indigenous groups who harvest it and it’s sold mostly online at a premium,” she says. “It’s hard to fake, they have tight control over how it’s branded and sold… it’s a really nice example of how you can take a resource and make sure as much (of the profit) as possible is coming back to the community.”

But good branding and standards aren’t necessarily a guarantee, says Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the Rowe School of Business and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“One concern a lot of people have is the integrity of the products that our sector is competing against,” he says. “Anything that’s liquid or has spices in it can be easily adulterated – adulteration is very costly to prove, you have to sample to test to compare, and obviously, these investigations are very costly.”

He calls the Chinese market, which has developed an appetite for icewine, as a bit of a “wild west” for Canadian producers, a market rife with counterfeit icewine.   

Quality, says Charlebois, is difficult to gauge when consumers aren’t entirely sure what the product should taste like, to begin with. It’s a challenge traditionally Canadian products like icewine and maple syrup are apt to face.

Charlebois suspects the education aspect is missing. “We don’t have a value chain that gives retail currency to any of our commodities.”

He points to IKEA as a working example. “IKEA is from Sweden and when you go to IKEA they actually promote some of their commodities.” Take the lingonberry, a staple in Sweden. “They sell juices and pies made with these lingonberries.”

Short of places like Smoke’s and Tim Hortons, Charlebois says that sort of retailing is missing.

“Unfortunately we rely on vendors, brokers, and many retailers to promote our products and they can’t do as good of a job as what IKEA is doing with Swedish-based commodities,” he says.

But could wild rice be Canada’s lingonberry? After all, like Canada’s wild rice, Sweden has no real claim to lingonberries, they grow elsewhere across the northern hemisphere.

Sweden just has a good national story. 

“With wild rice, they’ve lobbied to make sure (it’s) is served at key events, at the embassy, it’s pushed as local, tied to indigenous cuisine,” she says. “They’ve told the story well… to be honest, half of cuisine is telling a good story.”

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