For many of us, the granola bar aisle in the supermarket is a blur. All the same product, just different wrappers.
It’s not really but you’d need 20 minutes and a tour guide just to sort out which ones are which, what each granola bar is supposed to do, what they’ve got that’s good for you and what they’ve got that isn’t, and what it is you really need.
But if you look again at those shelves you may find there’s a lot more going on than you may realize. You can see the entire kaleidoscope of food development in the 21st century in a single little bar. Not just any bar, mind you. There’s one in particular, if you can find it on Manitoba store shelves. It’s a modern version of pemmican.
EPIC Provisions out of Austin, Texas is the company behind the Bison Bacon Cranberry Bar. It’s a meat energy bar similar to the heritage food pemmican made by Indigenous people, except this bar is made with cranberries instead saskatoons, and bacon instead bison fat. How’s that for a back to the future idea?
“It’s unusual to buy shelf-stable meat in the bar aisle (outside of the beef jerkey section),” said Robin Young, former chief operative officer of the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie, and it caught the world by surprise. It’s how you open up a food market all to yourself. EPIC now produces grassfed beef bars and a host of other products in line with its sustainable meat ethos.
The significance of the meat bar’s story is it’s a paradigm of food development today. The Texan married couple and endurance athletes behind the product had nothing to do with agriculture, and not much to do with food. They were on a vegan diet but as endurance athletes it was proving inadequate in terms of protein. The wife behind the husband-and-wife team had also become sick and couldn’t get a proper diagnosis. One practitioner suggested she might want to try eating meat again.
But it had to fit into their ethical diet. The couple already ran a small business making vegan bars. So they switched gears into paleo-diet protein bars. They entered a laboratory, like the FDC’s in Portage la Prairie, and trial-and-errored hundreds of recipes until they developed the very paleo Bison Bacon Cranberry Bar. It’s basically a softer version of beef jerky made with fruit and nuts. Grassfed beef bars soon followed and other similar mission-brand products. Within three years, General Mills bought the company for US$100 million, and the couple continues to run EPIC under the Minneapolis-based food giant’s auspices.
The point of the story is the couple had no background in agriculture or food whatsoever, and this is becoming the trend in food development. It’s not just mom-and-pop ideas coming off the farms. The vegan athletes weren’t raising bison; that was the furthest thing from their minds as committed vegans. Now, it’s people with ideas who then give those ideas to someone to make into the product. In fact, the Food Development Centre has seen a marked decrease in off-the-farm ideas for food products. Increasingly, the ideas come from what Young calls “marketers.”
At the same time, large food companies like General Mills are increasingly viewing little start-ups like EPIC as an innovation pipeline and buying them up.
“They’re the story where people come with their eyes twinkling and say I have this idea and I think it can fill a gap and I hope that there’s an investor,” said Young. “They’re one of the examples of what is driving entrepreneurship in the food sector. Because it’s not food people or farmers coming in, it’s marketers that are coming who have an idea and who are trying to see if there’s space (for their product) in the market.”
Now EPIC Provisions is into “bone broth” in keeping with its nose-to-tail concept, no different from how Indigenous people used every part of the bison. The couple, who now own a 450-acre ranch with bison, beef cattle, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and bees, also promote regenerative farming. “I use them as an example both with producers and processing clients,” said Young.
This is all a long-winded and long-winding way of saying a new dawn is coming in food development in Manitoba, and it’s in the shape of that sharp-looking new building that opened in downtown Winnipeg in 2020: the $30 million Richardson Innovation Centre.
The facility promises not just new economic activity around food development in the city, but an alternative way of thinking of ourselves: not just shippers of grains and oilseeds but a centre for adding value to those raw grains by turning them into finished food products.
The Innovation Centre will concentrate on everything from creating new products from scratch, to reformulating existing products, like eliminating partially hydrogenated food oil, or meeting vegan or gluten-free trends.
It’s not a simple transition for a company that’s been around longer than Manitoba as a province. Parent company Richardson & Sons oversees all the divisions, including Richardson International, and its primary service from the outset has been handling and moving raw grains and oilseeds. Despite some gradual movement into foods over the years, the food business is still an infant within the long-established grain company.
But Richardson International has been taking infant steps in food development for some years, it’s just not widely known because those products aren’t sold under the family name. For example, Richardson was the first company to market canola food oil, including the Canola Harvest brand in Western Canada. In Eastern Canada, it sells Crystal canola oil and margarine, and Mirage margarine. Its Heart Light food oil is sold overseas. In 2019, Richardson purchased Wesson, the top-selling cooking oil brand in the United States.
“We have a family of brands. It’s a house of brands organization. So not everything is called ‘Richardson Margarine,’ much like ConAgra has Hungry Man dinners but they’re not called ConAgra dinners,” said Chuck Cohen, vice-president of food and ingredients with Richardson International.
While Richardson International’s core business is handling Canadian canola and wheat, it also owns oilseed crushing plants and grain mills around the world. It is the world’s largest miller of oats with mills in Europe and North America, including its oat mill in Portage la Prairie. The downtown centre was the next logical step in its move into food markets.
That is, Richardson’s didn’t have a headquarters for its food personnel. They were scattered across North America in businesses Richardson’s had acquired over the years. In Winnipeg, food personnel were tossed in with the crop side of things. However, their numbers had grown to a critical mass where it made sense now to bring all those research and development people together under one roof. So that’s what it did.
“Anything branded that we might make and sell under the Richardson International brand or a private label, all of that technical work that sits behind (those products), all of that would happen at the Innovation Centre,” said Cohen, in an interview prior to his retirement at the end of 2020.
(The Richardson Innovation Centre is not to be confused with the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba. The latter was merely the Richardson name awarded for the company’s help funding construction of the U of M centre, and the Richardson company is not associated with its operation. The U of M lab looks more at using grains and oilseeds for supplements and medications, whereas the innovation centre is looking at developing marketable nutritional foods.)
Not that Winnipeg doesn’t already have food development. The Canadian Grain Commission houses a laboratory for testing baking properties of Canadian grains. The Canadian International Grains Institute also has an experimental bakery for testing baking performance making international products from flat breads to bagels from Canadian grain varieties. Both technical milling skills and knowledge working with grains at CGC and CIGI were huge enticements to setting up food development in Winnipeg, Cohen said.
Of course, there is the FDC in Portage providing pilot-level food manufacturing, which Richardson has worked with in the past. Neither should people overlook the importance of Red River College Polytechnic’s Culinary Arts program in the application of food products into cooking. The school houses world class facilities built with the help of funding from another old Winnipeg family grain company, Paterson & Sons, through Paterson GlobalFoods Inc.
Cohen said another benefit to Richardson controlling a food product from grain handling to processing to finished food product is unique traceability, quality and safety assurance to customers. (Richardson went a step farther two weeks after this interview with its purchase of local trucking firm Bison Transport, making it even more vertically integrated and taking a unique step for a grain firm by entering the trucking side.)
As for whether the company plans to jump into the protein business, like Roquette and Merit Functional Foods, officials were non-committal. Richardson enters into markets intentionally, said Jean-Marc Ruest, Richardson corporate affairs director. The company uses its own money, not other people’s money (like a publicly traded company), and therefore tries to take a more judicious and long-term approach to investing.
The Innovation Centre and its unique architecture and location in downtown Winnipeg is also a statement. The building’s second floor cantilevers out over the main floor like a head of grain or oilseed filling out the top of its stem. Cohen said the company could have built for a lot less money, but the Richardson family wanted to show its pride in its home city and province.
“We could have put up a Quonset somewhere, just leased some square footage in an industrial park with no signage, cut the costs,” said Cohen. “That building downtown is a statement, a statement about our company, a statement about our commitment to Winnipeg and the province, and a statement about (the direction) we would like the value-added processing in Manitoba to go.”
The building is also a statement beyond Manitoba’s borders as it will host customers from around the world to see the company’s products.
The Richardson Innovation Centre had just over 100 staff at the end of 2020 and has capacity for twice that number. Some people have moved to Winnipeg from outlying locations, and some haven’t, thereby opening up job opportunities locally. For example, the staff involved in canola oil development in Alberta have moved to Winnipeg.
The Richardson Innovation Centre will inevitably attract other entities and a cluster of food industry companies will grow.
FDC’s Young expressed it best how food development is growing in Manitoba, and not just because of the Richardson Innovation Centre. When Young graduated from food science more than two decades ago, her only options in research and development were to work at FDC, or move to Toronto or the United States to headquarters of multinationals. Now, food scientists interested in grain and oilseeds research and development have the option to work in many facilities—these include recently established ones like France-based Roquette’s pea processing facility in Portage la Prairie and Merit Functional Foods at Centreport in Winnipeg, which processes both peas and canola for protein. Now, along comes the Richardson centre.
“It’s a huge deal for Winnipeg,” she said. “There’s never been a time like this that I can think of.”
You can’t walk in off the street and pitch your ideas to the Richardson Innovation Centre but you can at the Food Development Centre.
The FDC was established in Portage la Prairie in 1978 to help develop new food products and take them to market. It has assisted hundreds if not thousands of wannabe entrepreneurs develop a food product for market.
Most of the products don’t make it, or don’t make it for long, but at least FDC gives people a shot. FDC does product development on about 40 products per year, of which five to six may make it to market.
A product doesn’t necessarily make it to market immediately; sometimes it takes years or decades to score in a major way. For example, a canola processing method developed by clients at FDC in the 1990s, and patented, is being used to extract protein from canola at the Merit Functional Foods plant.
The majority of clients were from farms when FDC began but that has changed in recent years to where the majority are now people who work with food, like chefs, or just entrepreneurs with an idea. For example, one of FDC’s clients is John Iliopoulos, owner of Greetalia Food Products. Iliopoulos has been a FDC client for more than 20 years, where he has made his famous honey dill sauce with their eye-catching blue and yellow label. The owner marketed his product for years in restaurants before going retail.
FDC contributes to the food and beverage manufacturing by nurturing homegrown products by homegrown entrepreneurs—it helps foster a mindset and culture of local innovation and opportunity.
“We aim to increase the amount of processing taking place in Manitoba. Instead of shipping mustard to France and buying back Dijon, or durum to Italy and buying back pasta, the goal is to do more processing here so we can capture more of the labour economy,” Young said.
It has an analytical lab to analyze elements like protein, fats and moisture content; a lab to develop prototypes and work with customers who have a recipe or product idea; a microbiology lab to verify the safety and shelf life of a product; an extraction and fractionation lab, using membrane filtration and centrifuges to extract protein; and a pilot plant for scaling up to commercial production levels.
“We’ll take a recipe that someone wants to scale up but they need to be more efficient. So we’ll take that home recipe and add industrial ingredients, change the ratio of things to ensure it’s going to meet expectations, whether it tastes and looks the same but also whether it will have some shelf stability,” explained Young.
It will also help with packaging selection and product application, and assist with health claims and nutritional labeling.
Its staff includes food scientists, food engineers, food technologists, nutritionists, and regulatory specialists. There is a cost to using its facilities, and that cost has increased for clients as FDC moves towards operating on a cost-recovery basis. However, both provincial and federal grants, like the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, are accessible for good ideas, Young said.
One of its prize pupils is Mike Fata, who started Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods in 1998 following Health Canada’s legalization of the cultivation of industrial hemp.
FDC provided research, product development, product conformity to regulations, and early production for the company’s hemp products. Today, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods produces bulk hemp oil and hemp, seed and products ranging from hemp milk to hemp granola bars for sale in more than a dozen countries. Manitoba Harvest bought Hemp Oil in 2015 for $42 million, which in turn was acquired by Toronto-based cannabis producer Tilray Inc. in 2019 for $419 million. Today, Manitoba Harvest employs 80 people.
Manitoba Harvest is proof that “a lot of big companies started out very small,” Young said.
One of the big demands at FDC in 2019 was people interested in making oat milk. Oat milk suddenly went trendy with Swedish brand, Oatly Oat Milk, leading the way. A company in Quebec is making an oat yogurt. Oats have always had a health halo, in part due to their cholesterol-lowering beta-glutan fibre. Neither do oats contain saturated fats. And oat milk is simple to make. Just add water to rolled oats, strain out the pulp, and you’re sporting a white mustache.
“To millennial entrepreneurs, that’s the next big thing, right? Sustainable beverages,” Young said.
Producers or producer groups see that, then see their oat crop waving in the field like hands going up in a classroom, and think, “Why don’t I make an oat milk?”
However, most people are stopped in their tracks when Young starts to explain the volumes and the long-term investment involved: developing a line that has shelf stability; the volume of oats required; the lack of a local co-packer to package volumes at a commercial scale.
“A lot of the requests are producer-oriented, but if you’re not prepared to put in money to build a facility, or find a co-packer…,” she said.
“Whether you make a powder that gets rehydrated, or if you’re going to soak that oat like a nut to make a milk, you have to find a facility willing to do that and bottle it, which is hard.”
On the other hand, would Richardson International, the world’s largest oat miller, be interested? Paterson GlobalFoods also invested $94 million recently to build an oat processing plant in Winnipeg. So something must be brewing with oats.
FDC has been involved in protein extraction for decades. Now, everyone else has finally caught up and a big trend now is clients wanting to extract ingredients to make foods, rather than develop whole products. In recent years, ingredient extraction has made up the bulk of FDC’s work. “We work with companies. Where does my product work best? Should it be oriented to a beverage, or in a batter or breading, or into a baked product?” said Young. That includes both animal and plant-based products.
One newcomer to the ingredient market is moringa powder. One of the products FDC helped launch in 2020 was a Moringa Tea by BioTei Inc. It a green leaf that comes from Africa but that has become popular in the edible beauty market, another new dietary trend. The leaf has a protein believed to nourish the hair and skin, and even help with weight loss and immunity boosting, by protecting against enzymes that break down collagen. There are collagen supplements on the market, as well.
FDC also looks at byproducts. Take an ingredient out of a plant and what do you do with the rest of the material? You are leaving something behind, either starch, fats or fibre. Bonus points if you can find an application. Much of FDC’s work is trying to make a co-product from byproduct.
One of the stranger ingredients developed at FDC is calcium from eggshell reclamation. About 45,000 tonnes of eggshells are disposed annually by processors, at a cost of up to $2 million. Burnbrae Farms out of rural Ontario, which sells eggs and a line of egg products like quiches, invested in research at FDC to find a use for its waste shells.
That research resulted in a powder made from eggshells that is now an ingredient in everything from calcium-fortified juice, to a calcium pharmaceutical, to a fertilizer additive.
FDC recently helped develop a product called a MicroBiome Bar using powder from saskatoon berries harvested in Manitoba’s Interlake. A little avant-garde company called Food First, out of Walhalla, North Dakota, just across the Canada-U.S. border from Winkler, makes the saskatoon powder into a gut health bioprotein bar.
One product from 2019 was a new formulation for Medallion Milk, a local powdered milk company. FDC has also assisted local company Solberry, which makes a seabuckthorn puree, develop an oil from the Vitamin C-charged orange berry. FDC has helped local wild rice company Floating Leaf develop a line of wild rice-and-pulses blends sold in Manitoba and abroad.
About 75 per cent of FDC clients are based in Manitoba. One of FDC’s international clients is Impossible Foods out of California. (Roquette works with Beyond Meat, and Merit Functional Foods works with Nestlé.) Impossible Foods “found us,” said Young, and at the end of 2020 were launching meat simulating plant products into the Canadian market for the first time, in restaurants in major cities Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
THE MAPLE LEAFS and Roquettes of the processing world grab the most headlines, but it’s all the little food manufacturing, the kind that FDC helps launch, that provide the most food manufacturing jobs.
A total of 16,095 direct jobs were reported for Manitoba’s food and beverage manufacturing sector in 2019, an increase of 2,495 jobs (18.3 per cent) from 2018. The majority of those jobs aren’t at big name facilities. Of that total, 20 per cent are micro companies with less than five employees; 72 per cent are in workplaces of five to 100 employees; and seven per cent at medium-sized businesses of 101 to 499 employees. Only one per cent of employment are in locations with 500 or more employees.
It all totals up to make food and beverages the largest manufacturing sector in Manitoba. The sector piled up $5.9 billion in sales in 2020, more than a quarter of Manitoba’s total in manufacturing. Food and beverage sales have racked up an impressive annual average growth rate of 6.7 per cent from 2017 – 2019.
Those figures are expected to get another boost in the 2020-21 period with protein processors Roquette and Merit Functional Foods starting up. Conservative estimates are for about 120 new jobs at Roquette, and perhaps 85 jobs at Merit, with potential for both to go up in the future.
Meat product manufacturing is the largest food manufacturing sector in Manitoba with $2.2 billion in sales in 2019—43 per cent of the total food manufacturing sales. Grain and oilseed milling is the second largest food manufacturing in Manitoba with $950 million in sales in 2019, accounting for 19 per cent of the total food manufacturing sales. Dairy product manufacturing ranked as the third largest food manufacturing with $755.9 million in sales in 2019, up by 0.25 per cent from $754 million in 2018, accounting for 15 per cent of total manufacturing sales.
Other key agrifood manufacturing employers are potato processors and soft drink manufacturers.
In 2019, 36.5 per cent of Manitoba’s international exports come from the agriculture and agri-processing industry, leading the province among all industries. Manitoba exported $5.8 billion worth of agri-food products in 2019.
The U.S. takes by far the majority of agri-food exports from Manitoba, about 45 per cent, followed by Japan at 15 per cent, China 10 per cent, Mexico six per cent, and Indonesia in the two – three per cent range.
COVID-19 SHRANK THE world, said Doug Langrell, a partner in Interlake Saskatoons that sells saskatoon powder in addition to fresh and frozen saskatoons. Many people got nervous about long, international food chains and looked more to buying local.
That was good for small food processors. “There’s a much greater awareness and interest in local food and healthy food,” said Langrell.
Interlake Saskatoons is a partnership of Interlake saskatoon growers, and it sold twice as many fresh saskatoons this summer as ever before at its outlet in Warren, Langrell said. Its saskatoon powder, under the label Purple Fit, used as a baking and health food ingredient, also took off. It is used in places like Hildegard’s Bakery in Winnipeg and retails at St-Léon Gardens in Winnipeg and Crampton’s Market in Headingley. Meanwhile, Patent 5 Distillery, near the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg, developed a saskatoon gin from Interlake Saskatoons product that is being readied for market in 2021.
Langrell also operates the Open Kitchen in Warren, a privately-owned, government-certified kitchen for commercial food production that rents out space to small food makers. “We had the two busiest months we’ve ever had in November and December (2020),” said Langrell.
Some of his clients include soup maker Bones and Marrow Broth Company, and Paleo Platery, a frozen food delivery service specializing in preparing meals to meet people’s dietary restrictions. Paleo Platery’s founder has multiple sclerosis and found a paleolithic diet mitigated her symptoms.
The $64,000 question heading into 2021 was whether the public will continue its local and health-conscious buying spree once the pandemic is over, Langrell said.
Meanwhile, local FDC alumnus, Ash Apiaries in Gilbert Plains, found the pandemic just stalled his product launch. Ash Apiaries developed a line of energy drinks sweetened with its honey called Honey Buzz.
Ash Apiaries, a family farm started in 1972, is a large honey operation with more than 11,000 colonies at 250 sites in the Parkland region. It employs up to 50 people, including family members, during peak season in summer.
The family business has sold honey under the Sunshine Valley label since 1989 and decided to try processing product for the emerging energy drink market. There are virtually no beverages using honey, and certainly nothing on the energy drink market.
“We had the idea and we had the honey,” said Brent Ash. “I’d tasted Red Bull and other energy drinks. Most of them I can’t swallow. Why not have something that tastes decent?”
Ash Apiaries had worked before with FDC years ago on creaming honey. It got about half its funding from the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council and went to work creating a new beverage at FDC. Ash wanted about 10 per cent honey content. “FDC came up with the formula and I did the taste-testing,” he said.
Honey Buzz, in four fruit flavours, has 82 milligrams of caffeine, about as much as a cup of coffee, and about half to a third as much caffeine as energy drinks like Red Bull and Rockstar.
“The boost you get, the kids notice it playing hockey. They have one at the end of the second period. And there’s no energy crash like of the Red Bulls, where you come off very quickly and hard.” It also wakes a person up during the midday doldrums, Ash said.
“People who know honey can taste the honey. It has a smooth feel in your mouth,” he said.
The product has been slow to hit retail stores, however, thanks to COVID-19. Ash also took responsibility for not dedicating more time to marketing in 2020.
The pandemic meant he couldn’t travel and make personal contact with retailers to get Honey Buzz into stores. Neither could he open a taste booth. Retailers also tended to stick with known product during COVID-19.
The price is higher than the competition, too, because of more expensive ingredients but also because of FDC costs. Ash said he only needs the facilities for an hour to make enough product, but FDC requires renting for an entire day. Ash Apiaries is taking steps to secure its own equipment and manufacture themselves on a smaller scale, he said.
On the plus side, it’s made with honey, “the healthiest sweetener out there,” said Ash, and the body breaks down honey much more efficiently than table sugar. Honey is also an antioxidant, antibacterial, “and it keeps forever.”