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Making more of less: How COVID-19 is impacting food production in Canada

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    TORONTO — Housebound Canadians are doing a lot more home cooking, which means keeping grocery shelves stocked is a lot more work.

    In the last two weeks of March, order volumes for food manufacturers surged by as much as 500 per cent, according to a Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) report released Thursday.

    To meet the growing demand, some Canadian food manufacturers are streamlining production to make more of their most popular items.

    Companies including Nestle, Prairie Flour Mills and Ital Pasta are already shifting their focus. Ital Pasta, which normally produces more than 60 varieties of pasta, is now only making six, focusing on traditional products like spaghetti, penne and lasagne, according to The Globe and Mail.

    The FCPC report said that 80 per cent of manufacturers they surveyed had increased production.

    Canada’s restaurant industry — worth more than $85 billion in 2017, according to a Statistica review — is now mostly shuttered, but is still trying to help with the supply. While some restaurants are surviving by producing orders for takeout, others are testing out supplying groceries direct to consumers.

    Earls, a chain of eateries with stores in the U.S. and Canada, launched “Earls Grocery” in early April, a program in which homeowners can order differently themed packages of groceries to be delivered to their doors, such as a produce package, a pantry pack and a protein pack.

    "You got too much product, and so you need to find a market for that," says Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie professor who researches food distribution and policy. "These products are perishable, so time is of (the) essence."

    According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 there were more than 81,000 full-service restaurants and limited-service eating places across the country. The closure of the majority of these businesses means the cancellation of a lot of standing bulk food orders from suppliers.

    Although the same number of people still need to eat, the closure of restaurants and the shift to home cooking is affecting not just how many products are made by companies, but what type of products are purchased.

    Roughly three-quarters of potatoes in Canada are eaten in restaurants, leaving farmers to wonder who will buy this year’s crop.

    "Nothing takes the wind out of you any quicker than seeing good food going to waste," Alex Docherty, a P.E.I. potato farmer, told CTV News.

    But some cattle farmers say they’ve seen an uptick in business in the past few weeks as Canadians stock their freezers with beef from the grocery store.

    "A steak you’d pay $40 for at a restaurant," Bob Lowe, President of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told CTV News. "Now it costs you $10 at the grocery store. I think people are going to see this as a good deal."

    Food and seafood may become more difficult to purchase, as 70 per cent of it is imported.

    Kitchen staples such as dairy and eggs are subject to regulations in Canada, meaning that if demand increases, farmers are theoretically capable of ramping up production without customers seeing spikes in prices.

    However, dairy farmers across the country say that demand hasn’t increased, and they’ve been struggling with fluctuations in the industry as the consumers shift spending away from restaurants.

    John Walker of Walker Dairy Inc. told CTV News London on Sunday that his farm was asked to dispose of its milk oversupply because “there is just nowhere for it to go.

    “Schools, restaurants, and even Tim Hortons’ amount of cream is down. Those are all things that have slowed down demand for our product right now,” he said.

    The Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) said in a statement Thursday that they are responding to the “dramatic changes in demand,” that COVID-19 has brought.

    Because dairy is perishable, it can’t simply be stored until it’s needed, but cows produce “a certain amount of milk per day and farmers must continue to milk them to keep them comfortable and well,” the DFC statement reads.

    Farmers are looking for solutions, however. DFC told CTVNews.ca in an email Monday that more than 2.5 million litres of milk had been given to food banks over the last week.

    According to the FCPC Report, the most in-demand products during the boost in orders for the last two weeks of March included canned goods, rice, pasta, baby food and baking supplies. Milk and eggs also made the list, adding hope that these industries could rebound from the loss of restaurant business.

    With files from CTVNews.ca’s Jackie Vandinther

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    • Grocery store

      Erin Call wears a mask as she shops for groceries at Harmons grocery store Friday, April 3, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP / Rick Bowmer)

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