As cattle producers begin to recover from the devastating fallout from mad-cow disease, Alberta's pork industry is gearing up with a major marketing push in a province where beef has always been considered king.
While beef consumption rose five per cent in 2003 - the year bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in an Alberta cow - it has since dropped to just above where it was in 2002, before the U.S. border closed to Canadian beef and cattle, according to Statistics Canada.
Pork consumption, however, increased in 2004 by 6.3 per cent - recovering from a 9.7-per-cent drop in 2003 - when people decided to support a beef industry in crisis.
"We need to keep pork in front of people so they don't back off," says pork producer Bill Wildeboer, who runs a small farrow-to-finish operation north of Lacombe. "We have to keep it in their face with promotions and ads to make them aware of the different pork products."
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Alberta Pork consumer services manager Roy Kruse sees natural a link between pork and sports.|
But it's always a challenge to push pork in beef country, says Roy Kruse, manager of consumer services for Alberta Pork.
"It's pretty tough in Alberta, where everything is beef, beef, beef. We may be much smaller than beef, but we're still a big part of the economic drive in Alberta," he says.
Pork is the province's fourth most valuable agricultural commodity, behind beef, wheat and canola. It has 1,400 pork producers and 3.5 million pigs, representing about 17 per cent of Canadian production.
"People don't realize there's a pork industry in Alberta, but it out-produces and out-exports beef," adds Alberta Pork general manager Ed Schultz.
Even prior to BSE, the pork industry was Canada's top meat producer and exporter. Canada produced 1.6 million metric tonnes of pork, compared to 1.2 million metric tonnes of beef.
And exports were double that of beef, with 800,000 tonnes of pork shipped a year, compared to 400,000 tonnes of beef.
Having benefited from high pork prices earlier this year, the industry is on a roll, recently launching a Pork Sports campaign that will showcase pork at various sports venues.
The marketing initiative, funded by Alberta Pork and the Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund, is a two-year partnership with the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos football clubs, the Calgary Flames hockey club, and the Calgary Roughnecks and Edmonton Rush lacrosse teams. Each franchise will have an individual agreement.
"Pork is a nutritional food, so it's a natural link to sports," adds Kruse.
"We're trying to get as many sport franchises as possible."
Kruse estimates the value of the exposure, which includes contests and a Pork Sports logo displayed at venues, to be worth about $1 million annually.
Two years ago, Alberta Pork struck such a partnership with the Edmonton Oilers hockey club, selling 32,000 portions of sausage, ribs and pulled pork, and 20,000 portions last year during amateur games held during the National Hockey League lockout, Kruse says.
"It's a great thing. The sports audience is so huge, so we should get good exposure out of this," says Tony Matejka, whose family runs a farrow-to-finish operation at Sylvan Lake.
The Pork Sports campaign also comes at a time when the industry is trying to reduce its reliance on the U.S. market. It doesn't want to repeat the mistakes made by the beef industry, when a closed U.S. border because of BSE shut down at least 60 per cent of its exports.
An outbreak of foot and mouth disease or classic swine fever could devastate exports, Schultz says. "I'd like to see all live pigs stay here, for value-added benefits."
About two-thirds of Canadian pork is eaten outside the country, while 50 per cent of Canada's pigs are shipped to the U.S., and Alberta's hog and pork exports account for 10 per cent of those exports.
For the past three years, Canada ranked as the world's No. 1 pork exporter, having recently slipped to second spot behind the U.S. In 2004, Canada exported a record 970,000 metric tonnes of pork, with the U.S. shipping one million tonnes. "The U.S. and Canada share 46 per cent of the world's pork exports," Schultz says.
"With a possible poultry shortage because of the avian flu and a fish shortage worldwide, we expect export demand to stay strong. Pork is still the preferred alternative meat in southeast Asia," he adds.
To keep its place in the world market, the pork industry is developing a trace-back and identification system to be implemented over the next three years. Splitting the country into zones is also under consideration, so that a disease outbreak in one half of the country wouldn't affect trading in the other half.
The industry also took a positive turn this year when it regained access to the American market, after the U.S. International Trade Commission rejected tariffs imposed on Canadian hogs, Schultz says.
Between last October and April of this year, a 10.63-per-cent duty was levied on Canadian hogs after a preliminary ruling that pigs were being dumped on the U.S. market. The ruling ate into profits and curtailed barn development.
However, Alberta's market-hog production is lagging behind the other Prairie provinces, says Schultz.
"For four years, our slaughter production has only increased 2.5 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in Saskatchewan and 40 per cent in Manitoba."
Schultz speculates that strict guidelines for confined feeding operations, such as large hog barns, may be hindering development.
In Alberta, intensive livestock operations are regulated by the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB).
"The delays and legal costs involved in getting a development permit may be creating some fear. I think the NRCB may be overzealous in how it applies regulations," Schultz says.
Producers may instead find it easier to set up operations in Manitoba, the heart of Canada's hog industry, he notes.
Alberta ranks No. 4 for hog production, behind Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.
According to Statistics Canada and Alberta Agriculture, Alberta has 31.8 per cent of the western Canadian pig population of 6.43 million head.
Sylvan Lake producer Matejka agrees the NRCB may have sent a chill throughout the Alberta pork industry. "I know a number of people who tried to build, but were turned down."
With its substantial landbase, Alberta's pork industry has the potential for growth, but it suffers from the perception that all hog barns are environmental hazards, Matejka says. "It's one of our biggest challenges."
High input costs also deter small producers from getting into the business, and older ones are retiring, adds Wildeboer. "You need a lot of cash upfront to get into the business, so only large corporations can afford it."
Labour costs are also a factor. "It doesn't seem to matter how much money you offer, it's hard to get people to work in the barns," says Wildeboer. "People want a more glorified occupation, and they can always get more money in the oil and gas sector."
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at email@example.com)