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Quebec honey producer sees sweet sales in Asia

Explosion of sales at Costco also helps Ruchers Promiel's organic honey business

Canada's largest producer of organic honey is enjoying record sales this year.

But the owner of the Quebec company says he'll need to keep flying above the challenges now stinging the global industry if he hopes to continue spinning honey into liquid gold.

"Things are pretty sweet for us right now," said Redmond Hayes, founder and owner of Ruchers Promiel (or pro-honey beehouses).

According to Hayes, his business will register a 75% increase in sales in 2015, to nearly $12 million.

He credits most of that growth to an expansion and explosion of sales of his organic Naturoney brand at Costco stores across Canada.

A Costco supplier for Eastern Canada since 2008, Hayes also began supplying Western Canada a year ago.

He credits what he calls "very strong sales" on Costco's promotion of organic products, especially in-store tastings of his products during Canada's National Organic Week in mid Sept.

"That point-of-sale promotion helped us a lot," said Hayes.

He also credits sweet-toothed consumers in Asia, his only export market, for helping boost company sales this year.

According to Hayes, sales in Japan, China, and Hong Kong have enjoyed double-digit annual growth since he started shipping conventional Canadian honey there in the aftermath of the melamine milk scandal in China in 2008.

"People there were worried about the safety of Chinese food imports," said Hayes.  "That worked well for us because Canada has the most stringent safety and quality controls for honey production in the world."

From the three pallets of three varieties of Prairie honey—goldenrod, blueberry and a mix—he sent to Asia the first year, Hayes now ships one container with 20 pallets every month.

His company also produces a half-dozen varieties of conventional honey—including clover, creamy, dandelion, goldenrod, blueberry, and buckwheat - under the Musée de l'Abeille (or Bee Museum) label.

Available in a variety of sizes - none more popular than the 375-ml format - those products are sold in Loblaws and Maxi stores across Quebec, two Maxi locations in Eastern Ontario, some specialty food stores, and at the store and bee museum at the front of Hayes' plant in Chateau-Richer, a 20-minute drive east of Quebec City, where some 2,000 metric tonnes of honey is processed each year.

According to Hayes, antioxidant-rich honey has enjoyed an upswing in popularity as a food item in recent years, thanks to its naturalness and health benefits, both real and imagined.

Honey retail sales in Canada are an estimated $20 million a year. However, most of the roughly 60,000 metric tons of honey produced in Canada each year is used by food manufacturers to make everything from snack bars and cereals to beverages and sauces.

According to Hayes, recent collaborative efforts by governments and agricultural groups to stem pesticides are helping to reduce the morality rates of bees.

He said the main threats to the honey industry now are dumping by China via third party nations, and false labelling and copying of popular honey products.

"It's a real challenge internationally and here in Canada," said Hayes.  "Stopping it requires the widespread use of origin certificates like True Source."

He is hopeful however that his company can avoid the headaches that those issues are causing standardized honey makers like London, Ont.-based Billy Bee.

"We're in a nice niche," said Hayes.  "I doubt we will experience another jump in sales like we did this year.  But our numbers should continue to grow."

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