Top food-related stories of 2021

The year 2021 was certainly another challenging year for most of us. It was also an incredibly difficult year for people in the food industry, from farm gate to plate. Most headlines related to the food industry had to do with problems and issues related to supply chains, labour, forced closures due to COVID outbreaks and many other operational entanglements. But we also need to celebrate what the food industry has accomplished this year. As they did last year, producers, processors, grocers and restaurants have kept us food secure. This was no small feat, given how complicated and prolonged this pandemic has become.

While 2020 showed us how our food supply chains can be resilient, this year, unsurprisingly, showed us that our food supply chain can experience fatigue. This was to be expected, as we reach the end of the second year of the pandemic. Despite some ruptures, container shortages, natural disasters, and the Suez Canal impasse, our food supply chain kept on going, and we should expect the same in 2022. To reflect on what has happened over the last 12 months, here’s a list of the most intriguing and unexpected food-related news stories we saw in 2021.

No. 10: The Suez Canal obstruction

We don’t think of canals very often, but the pandemic has made us all more acutely aware of how global food distribution works, or how bottlenecks can become a problem virtually overnight. When the Ever Given, a 400-metre-long (1,300 ft) container ship—one of the largest in the world—blocked the Suez Canal in March, the entire world was focused on that one ship for six days. According to estimates, the incident cost about US$400 million an hour, but the impact on Canada’s food systems was minimal.

No. 9: Timbiebs

Tim Hortons' latest marketing campaign surprised a few industry observers. The iconic Canadian chain is licking its lips for having sniffed out a deal by asking Justin Bieber, a Canadian mega-star, to create three new flavors for its smaller donuts, Timbits. The success of the campaign will bring in a legion of younger customers, which was sorely needed. It was a unique approach for Restaurant Brands International. After a slew of major mishaps after it acquired Tim Hortons a few years ago, the holding company is finally showing signs of understanding Tim Hortons' roots.

No. 8: Retail code of conduct

Many consumers cannot appreciate how much grocers overpower food manufacturers and suppliers in our country. Some countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom were facing similar issues and produced a code of conduct to stop grocers from “bullying” the rest of the supply chain by charging unjustified fees and implementing unreasonable transactional terms. The year 2021 saw the creation of a federal “code of conduct” committee co-chaired by Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Quebec’s agriculture Minister André Lamontagne. A code could help our food inflation challenges and reduce the possibilities of collusion in the future. Despite the fact  progress has been slow, the creation of a committee was particularly good news.

No. 7: Weston Bakeries sold

One of the largest bakeries in the country, which was caught in the bread price fixing scandal that lasted 13 years, was finally sold to another Canadian company. With this deal, while the bakery sector became even more consolidated in our country, Loblaw is now very much focused on food distribution. But with more consolidation could come higher bread prices. Should be interesting.

No. 6: Running out of turkeys

The words “food shortage” were thrown around constantly in 2021, as in 2020. Most consumers are now accustomed to periodically seeing empty grocery shelves. Most of us have adjusted our expectations. But the most ridiculous story was with turkeys. Canada just cannot run out of turkeys as the commodity is supply managed. Stocks can be low in parts of the country, but that would be it.

No. 5: Canadian Dairy Commission’s record recommendation

Few Canadians are familiar with the Canadian Dairy Commission, which is a Crown corporation responsible for making sure dairy farmers make a decent living in Canada. Every year, it calculates how much dairy farmers should get for their milk. When it released its recommendations for 2022, many were shocked to learn the Crown corporation was recommending an 8.4% increase for milk and 12.4% for butterfat, probably due to the palm oil scandal that happened in March. These rates are the highest in more than 50 years. Canadians should expect their trip to the dairy section at the grocery store to get more expensive in 2022.

No. 4: PEI potatoes and science

Two farms in Prince Edward Island discovered a contagious wart on potatoes. Despite scientific protocols implemented by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada imposed an embargo on Island potatoes going to the United States. Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau claimed that the United States would have issued a nationwide embargo if nothing had been done. Speculations suggest trade related to electric vehicles had more to do with the misfortunes of our potato producers. The year 2021 reminded us, yet again, that science always take a back seat to trade politics.

No. 3: Rise of the food worker

As we saw in 2020, food workers received even more public sympathy and became more political in 2021. Many food manufacturers in Canada and elsewhere offered substantial wage increases and better benefits to their employees, to either avoid or end labour disputes. Nabisco’s labour dispute even attracted the attention of well-known Hollywood actor Danny DeVito to advocate for workers, probably a first. In Canada, Olymel, Exceldor, Cargill and others are now offering higher wages and even signing bonuses, to make the sector more attractive. But this push will also lead to more automation, and such a trend will continue into 2022.

No. 2: Heat dome and atmospheric rivers

Every year, Mother Nature has a way of reminding us of who is in charge. But the year 2021 brought more than its share of dramatic climate events. On June 29 of this year, the temperature in Lytton, B.C., reached 49.6 degrees, the highest temperature on record in Canada. In November, The Fraser Valley and many other parts of British Columbia were devastated by atmospheric rivers, which destroyed livestock, fields of crops, roads and railways. The year 2021 is yet another reminder that our food systems are highly vulnerable to climate change.

No. 1: Food inflation

This was the obvious topic to select as the No. 1 food-related news story this year. Food inflation was more than 4% by September, and we are expecting another challenging year in 2022, according to Canada’s Food Price Report. Higher input costs, global supply chain woes and labour challenges are mostly responsible for what is happening across the globe, and in Canada. Food prices should go up, but wages are not following to support Canadian families. According to the United Nations, Canada ranked 18th in the world when food affordability is measured. Now, it is ranked 24th and our country could drop even further in 2022. Food bank traffic will continue to grow.

Last year’s top story was the panic buying we saw in 2020. It could always happen again, but we should be grateful it did not occur in 2021. We should remain thankful for what the food industry is doing for all of us, every day, one miracle at a time.

Happy New Year.

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