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Challenging 2018 sets Maple Leaf up for success in plant-protein space

CEO Michael McCain says the company will continue to aggressively invest in plant protein products

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. called 2018 a challenging year with essentially
flat sales
, but one that sets it up for a successful future as it touted itself as a leader in plant-protein products.

Global trading relationships created unprecedented volatility that reverberated across the pork industry, said CEO Michael McCain during a conference call with analysts last week after the company released its fourth-quarter financial report.

The company still delivered essentially flat sales for the year in this turbulent environment, he said.

"With all the short-termism of the markets aside, we feel 2018 was, in fact, an important year," McCain said.

He outlined the company's accomplishments including growing its raised-without-antibiotics meat portfolio, completing several strategic acquisitions and announcing the construction of a poultry facility.

That investment drove a $42.2-million restructuring charge in the fourth quarter, a one-time expense that contributed to Maple Leaf's drop in profit compared with a year ago.

READ: Maple Leaf expands further into alternative proteins

However, McCain honed in most on advancing the company's plant-based protein offerings. The company launched Greenleaf Foods SPC in October, a subsidiary headquartered in Chicago that will add to Maple Leaf's plant-based food offerings.

In January, the company launched a pea-protein Lightlife burger, first with American food service companies. U.S. grocery stores will start to stock the product in late March, while the Canadian launch won't take place until April.

"We are really, really jazzed up about this," said McCain, saying the company seized on the rising demand of alternative proteins that look and taste like meat.

READ: Maple Leaf Foods to buy meatless foods producer

The Beyond Meat burger, a rival plant-based offering that attempts to mimic the taste and texture of meat, is already available in Canada in a number of restaurants, including fast-food chain A&W.

When Maple Leaf acquired Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat Co. in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the category was growing between 10% and 13%, McCain said.

It's now growing more than 30%, he said, and the company's growth rates are in line with that.

"We're the leading operator in North America and we're going to continue to invest in it and ride that wave aggressively," he said.

Maple Leaf reported a profit of $11.9 million for the quarter ended Dec. 31. That is down nearly 80% from a profit of $59.1 million in the last three months of 2017.

Sales totalled $893.9 million, up from $876.8 million.


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