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John Rowe, president of island Abbey Foods, displays the honibe product at his company in Charlottetown, P.E.I. (Brian McInnis)
John Rowe, president of island Abbey Foods, displays the honibe product at his company in Charlottetown, P.E.I. (Brian McInnis)


Canada's food producers relish taste of success Add to ...

The made-in-Canada label doesn't hurt either. "Clean, healthy, high quality - that's the impression that comes with the Canadian stamp," she says. "It opens doors for us."

Other food producers are finding the same thing. John Rowe was on a camping trip in British Columbia's backwoods in 1996 when he realized a glass jar of honey had broken, leaving his backpack a sweet-smelling sticky mess. His first thought: beware should bears get a whiff. His second: there's got to be a better way to transport honey.

So he set about studying how to convert pure honey into a solid. Sounds simple. But it took 10 years of slogging in labs while working two jobs to do it. Now, Mr. Rowe, who has since moved home to the red soils of Prince Edward Island, runs a food plant that produces the world's first honey that is both solid and contains only honey. Sales have jumped tenfold per year since its start in 2007. The company, Island Abbey Foods Ltd., is rapidly expanding outside Canada to several dozen countries. Last fall, Honibe brand won the top prize for the world's most innovative food product.

"We've been floored," he says. "Within the next two years, I imagine we'll be double where we are today."

He rattles off some reasons for success - honey's healthy properties and the fact that his product contains only honey and nothing else. But a key advantage he finds as he traverses the planet: the made-in-Canada label and the wholesome image he says his province projects.

"I travel all over, when I tell people where I'm from, there's a sense of trust," Mr. Rowe says. "More and more, consumers are concerned with origin and composition of their food."

Stringent safety rules

Governments are starting to take note of food's potential, by establishing research centres and promoting Canadian goods globally.

Toronto - now the second-largest food producer in North America after Chicago - has developed a comprehensive food plan. In May, Ontario unveiled a food-cluster strategy that aims to attract global investment and promote Canadian products overseas. This fall, the province will open an institute of food-processing technology that will eventually host 500 full-time students. The Conference Board is working on a national framework for the food industry and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute is also working on policy.

It's a promising source of employment. Making a chicken nugget or pre-made Caesar salad, for example, typically needs more people than making a car part. Wages also tend to be higher - jobs in the industry yield wages that are on average 25 per cent higher than the national average, the industry says.

Food-innovation centres are springing up across Canada with government and university backing, from Charlottetown's smart kitchen to Burnaby's agri-food centre. They frequently function as labs that bridge researchers, students and the private sector.

Guelph's food-technology centre is used by companies such as Italpasta Ltd. and McCain Foods to test out new ideas and combine new types of ingredients. One room, a cross between a giant kitchen and mad-science lab, tests new types of cheeses and ice creams.

The centre also helps companies identify new trends. Karen McPhee, manager of product-development services, rattles off several shifts: sodium-reduced food, gluten-free products and simpler, more natural ingredients. Food is being viewed as medicine, she says, with more products that promise Omega 3s, antioxidants or probiotics.

The sector faces its share of headwinds. Like other manufacturers, a strong currency and volatile energy prices are causing headaches, and it has smaller economies of scale than many counterparts.

Canada must also balance stringent food-safety rules with consumers' desire for new products. Processors are frustrated with the time it takes to get new goods to market, says Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president at Food & Consumer Products of Canada.

"As far as the food world goes, Canada has the reputation of being one of the slowest, lagging markets," he says, adding that the country's food framework is about 60 years out of date. "We're falling behind."

For example, a new margarine made with plant sterols - a plant compound associated with lowering cholesterol - took more than five years to get the nod though it's been available in other countries for a decade, he says.

Back at Honibe, John Rowe is busy promoting his products in the U.K., Japan, Hong Kong and China. It helps that most of the honey he uses comes from the island. His company is growing so quickly, he's also now buying from Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta. But he's sticking with strictly Canadian honey.

"People understand the quality of the Canadian product," he says. "Being from Prince Edward Island helps, and being 100-per-cent Canadian definitely helps as well."

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