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Quebec berry growers fight for more shelf space

Local growers compete against international imports for space in grocery stores

Quebec berry growers aren’t feeling the love from major supermarket chains.

Growers took exception last week to Loblaw’s and Metro’s heavy promotion of imported raspberries. There have been ongoing complaints that local berries are not given sufficient promotion or display in supermarkets.

Though growers admit they don’t have sufficient quantities to meet demand throughout the province, Yourianne Plante of the Association des producteurs de fraises et framboises du Québec, says they’re not asking retailers to stop selling U.S. raspberries.

“We are asking that they don’t promote them when we are right in the peak of our season– especially on the front page of their flyers as Metro and Loblaw did last week,” she says. Plante says while you can find Quebec raspberries from July to August, high season is only three weeks from mid-July to the beginning of August.

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“We buy all the Quebec raspberries we can, but there are not enough to meet demand,” explained Laurie Fossat, a Sobeys Quebec spokesperson. “We are proud to say that at IGA, raspberries from Quebec are in our circular at the same price as the U.S. raspberries.”

Metro said they promoted local raspberries inside their flyer, and Loblaw confirmed Quebec raspberries are featured in this week's Provigo and Loblaw flyers.

"Encouraging customers to buy local is a daily priority for us and during the summer season, approximately 40% of our produce offering comes from Quebec," said Johanne Heroux, senior director, corporate affairs and communications at Loblaw.

The problem with local berries goes beyond price and supply. Imported berries do sell cheaper because industrial growers like Driscoll’s in California are not only infinitely larger than Quebec producers, they have access to pools of cheap labour.

As well, says Pierre Alexandre Blouin, vice-president of public affairs for the Quebec Food Retailers Association, California berries are picked earlier and the strains have a longer shelf life.

Quebec berries spoil quicker, are sold in smaller packages, and are usually more expensive.

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Blouin says retailers also often can’t pass up berry bargains offered by large wholesalers.

Blouin says today’s consumer wants local produce, but they want it year-round. Though there have been advances in greenhouse berry production, Quebec raspberries and blueberries usually arrive together during a short summer season. Strawberries are now spread through much of the late spring and summer but imported berries, be it from Chile, Argentina, Mexico or the U.S., are relatively inexpensive and available 12 months a year.

Jordon Lebel, an expert in food marketing at Montreal’s Concordia University, wonders if the R&D at the agricultural level has been matched with packaging, merchandising and point of sale initiatives that might further entice shoppers.

“I also believe that price is a big issue,” he said. “No matter how much consumers say they care about local, at the point of purchase or selection, price rules.  … For $3, a container of U.S. or Mexican raspberries that looks fuller, plumper, juicier than a smaller container of Quebec fruits will likely end up in the shopping cart.”

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