food industry image issues then and now 600w 20200615

Butcher May Farrell at work, 1960 (Canadian Encyclopedia) and Cargill plant workers, 2020 (Western Producer)


The food manufacturing industry has an image problem. COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reframe the food sector as worthy of investment and career aspirations. Now is a great time for a makeover.

A mere generation ago working in a food plant was something to be proud of. In the image above, butcher May Farrell poses proudly at a packing plant in Manitoba. Similarly, in a history of BC Packers, one of the largest fish processors in British Columbia (closed in 1997), plant workers regaled their skills and were proud of their jobs. These days, according to the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and the BC Alliance for Manufacturing, negative perceptions of the food industry contribute to ongoing labour shortages. People don’t want to work in an industry with a bad reputation.

Prior to the pandemic, the Canadian food supply chain was invisible. As long as store shelves were full, there was no need to think about where food came from. Those that did think about the food supply drew on deep rooted belief systems that provided comforting images of food coming from pastoral farms. These belief systems are leveraged by marketing with beautiful farms and happy animals on packaging and advertisements. Meanwhile, the rest of the food chain was forgotten; with the exception of processors framed negatively by the media. For example, images of huge packing plants or negative narratives by popular influencers. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, claimed that food companies do not care about people’s health, just profit; and Raj Patel, author of Stuffed & Starved, described “[Food processors] concerns as the rot at the core of the modern food system.” Indeed, it is difficult for processors to garner public support when, in contrast to farming, processing evokes negative images. Fortunately, Covid-19 brought the spotlight to our food system with the realization that every link in the supply chain is important.

The pandemic provides the Canadian food processing sector with a prime opportunity to reframe; to differentiate itself from the multinational giants that Nestle and Patel refer to. James Donaldson, CEO of the BC Food & Beverage Association conceded that not many know how important the food manufacturing industry is. Few realize that food manufacturing is the largest manufacturing sector in Canada, contributing $112.4 billion to the economy. Nor do people realize that most Canadian processors are small family businesses. In the globalized world Canadian processors are miniscule - 26% have fewer than 5 employees, 90% less than 100 and only 1% have more than 500 employees. In contrast, Nestlé has 339,000 workers. Most Canadian food processors are undercapitalized and cannot afford upgrades to infrastructure and technology required to compete with multinationals, attract talent and remain viable in an increasingly competitive world.

Competition and the globalized food system deliver cheap food at a tremendous cost to our domestic food system. Covid-19 reveals the instability of the global food supply chain and the need for government leadership towards strong regionalized food systems. According to Sylvain Charlebois, Professor in Food Distribution and Policy at Dalhousie University, “the Canadian food processing industry is anemic, bleeding to death, and struggling to compete in the globalized food system.” This vulnerable state is the result of industry consolidation and the closure of many Canadian facilities. The consequence, Canada imports more processed food than it makes. Charlebois states that “food processing is the forgotten child of government agrifood supports.” Without leadership the food industry is fractured, each subsector competing against each other for the small pot allocated to agriculture. The result: Food processing in Canada lags behind other countries with regard to innovation and technology adoption.

The lack of investment in Canadian food processing manifests itself in facilities that rely on manual labour and foreign workers. In a 2017 report, Food and Beverage Research and Innovation Priority Setting, the Canadian Food Innovators identified the adoption of automation and robotics as one solution to the industry’s chronic labour shortages. Indeed, soft robotics offer tremendous potential for mitigating virus transmission in food processing plants. However, research and automation implementation are expensive. The industry needs to garner the support of government and academia in order to innovate and attract investment.

That takes us back to framing. Government and academic support for the domestic food system will not happen until the food processing industry is reframed positively. Framing is like herd immunity in that it is pervasive; once a societal perception exists it affects the whole population. The negative framing of the food processing industry pervades society, including leaders. What does this mean for food processing? According to communication scholars Farhurst and Sarr, leaders lead by framing what they know and understand. The invisibility and negative framing of food processing accounts for why it is the “forgotten child” of government supports. In other words, because leaders don’t understand the food processing industry, it is overlooked. As identified by the Canadian Food Innovators, there is a dire need to educate leaders about the food sector in order to facilitate investment and innovation.

What can the food processing industry do?

  • Take immediate steps to leverage the positive PR brought about by Covid-19.
  • Highlight the essentialness of all food system actors, and the need to collaborate towards the development of uninterruptable regional food systems.
  • Canadian food processors should differentiate themselves from international giants.
  • Trade associations must place more emphasis on public relations and collaboration with educational institutions and government.
  • Educational institutions need to understand the role they can play in addressing the issues faced by the domestic food industry. Leadership at academic institutions can positively shift the perceptions of students, and future leaders, to stimulate pride in the production of food.
  • Finally, government needs to elevate the importance of food. It is time for a new paradigm, a Ministry of Food, where food production is viewed as a system worthy of support.
  • A robust domestic food system is vital to the welfare of all Canadians and is something we can all be proud of.

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by Debra Hellbach, Food Systems Catalyst

With a background in food science, 30 years industry experience, and a graduate degree in communications Debra is a catalyst of domestic food system development.