Interviews

Plant-Based Foods of Canada: “Canada is in a Position of Strength in Plant-Based Foods”

Plant-Based Foods of Canada (PBFC) is a Canadian industry association focused on promoting the growth and awareness of plant-based foods in the country, acting as a collective voice for companies that produce and sell plant-based food products. The association works to raise public awareness about the benefits and options available in plant-based foods and advocates for policies and regulations that support their development and accessibility in Canada. Notable members of the PBFC include Daiya, Califia Farms, Gardein, Oatly, NotCo, and Yves.

Leslie Ewing is the executive director of PBFC and a recognized leader in the Canadian plant-based food industry. In this interview, Leslie discusses the dynamic trends in consumer behaviour and market growth, noting the industry’s resilience amidst economic challenges and consumers’ evolving demands. She also provides insights into the Canadian plant-based food landscape compared with major markets like the US and EU, highlighting Canada’s strengths and unique strategies.

Can you please briefly describe Plant-Based Foods of Canada and its mission?
Plant-Based Foods of Canada is the collective voice for companies that make and market plant-based food products. Our mission is to advance a Canadian plant-based food industry that is competitive on a global scale to meet the evolving needs of our members, stakeholders, and marketplace. Our integrated diverse membership – farm to fork – farmers through to retailers – is a game changer and provides us with a unique opportunity to gauge the perspective and leverage the expertise of many along the value chain. The ability to tap into this supports our efforts to drive industry growth, create partnerships, and gain regulatory support.

© Plant-Based Foods of Canada

What trends are you observing in consumer behaviour and market growth in the plant-based food industry in Canada?
The plant-based food industry in Canada has grown exponentially, moving from a small section in the grocery store catering to a particular lifestyle or dietary need to the most innovative segment of the industry, with options in almost every category.

Over the last couple of years, the industry has been impacted by many of the same challenges that the broader food industry is experiencing – supply chain disruptions, global crises, and inflationary pressures. Canadians are generally buying less food as they manage the current economic environment. This is true across the grocery store with most food departments seeing their sales decrease vs last year. We are also experiencing an evolution of the plant-based foods consumer – they are becoming more discerning and are challenging companies to innovate and bring to market new options and other varieties of foods to meet their demand.

“The long-term projections for the plant-based food industry are strong”

Canadian consumers are increasingly health-conscious and environmentally aware, like those in the US and EU. The long-term projections for the plant-based food industry are strong, with 61% of Canadians using plant-based products. Importantly, the consumer dynamics of units per household, dollars per household and trips per household for the plant-based shopper in Canada have remained relatively stable, and the dollar sales of non-dairy beverages, the largest of the plant-based segments, have remained even despite economic pressures. This demonstrates the overall resiliency of the industry.

How is innovation shaping the plant-based food sector in Canada?
The Canadian government identified plant-based proteins as an economic driver for Canada several years ago and has invested $350 million dollars through an innovation supercluster, Protein Industries Canada, to drive efficiencies, innovation, ingredient and food processing for domestic use and export. This money that is predicated on collaborative projects has accelerated the innovation happening in the market.

“Our mission is to advance a Canadian plant-based food industry that is competitive on a global scale”

At the same time, Canada has long been viewed as a test market for new product development by multinationals to later be exported or adopted by other markets around the globe. From new plant-based entrants into categories like snacks, meals, and creamers to improved functionality and nutrition content. Through collaboration all along the value chain, companies are delivering products that consumers are looking for. The combination of these two factors is resulting in a wave of innovation and entrepreneurial start-ups, many of whom are PBFC members, and larger companies are offering new products for Canadian consumers.

© Plant-Based Foods of Canada

How does Canada’s plant-based food industry compare with other major markets, such as the US or the EU? Are there lessons or strategies that Canadian companies could adopt from these markets?
Through the International Plant Based Foods Working Group, of which Canada, the US, and the EU are members, I am pleased to say that we are looking at what we can learn and leverage based on the environment in our respective countries to support our members and the overall industry’s growth.

The Canadian plant-based foods industry shares many similarities with the US and EU markets but also has some distinct characteristics influenced by local consumer preferences, regulatory environments, and market dynamics.

“Brands need to be differentiated and aligned with consumer needs to do well”

While smaller in scale from a market perspective compared to the US and EU, Canada is in a position of strength in plant-based foods. We have significant agricultural land, sustainable practices, we are the largest pulse producer in the world, and a clear strategy to drive domestic growth and supply international markets through the Road to $25 Billion Roadmap. The roadmap recognizes Canada’s unique attributes and builds on them to advance ingredient processing, food manufacturing and bioproducts to grow the industry in Canada. This strategy creates an interconnectedness all along the value chain that we continue to build on for the benefit of all.

The recognition of plant-based proteins as an economic driver by the Federal Government combined with Canada’s Food Guide which encourages Canadians to consume plant-based foods more often infers a supportive environment for the growth of the industry.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing your members in the next few years?
When plant-based products exploded in the Canadian market in 2018, there was a rush of acceptance, and products were making their way onto grocery shelves as fast as they were being introduced. Since that time there have been many new entrants, from start-ups to established food companies and retailers launching their own plant-based lines. As the industry matures, competition will continue to intensify, making it harder for individual brands to gain shelf space, stand out, and ultimately maintain market share. Brands need to be differentiated and aligned with consumer needs to do well.

Securing sufficient investment and funding to support growth, research, and innovation is crucial. While interest in the sector is high, consistent financial backing from a variety of sources is necessary to drive long-term development and competitiveness.

There is growing consumer interest in plant-based diets, whether that be for health, environmental reasons, animal welfare or just because they provide options for everyday meal planning. At the same time, there is an opportunity for the industry to work collectively to bring consumers by educating on the benefits of plant-based diets and addressing misconceptions to increase market penetration.

Daiya Foods lifestyle shot
© Daiya Foods

What specific actions is PBFC taking to influence government policy and public perception regarding plant-based foods? Are there upcoming legislative changes that could affect the industry?
As the voice of the plant-based food industry, we have the responsibility to advocate for regulations governing plant-based foods that are fair and equitable and promote both innovation and growth.

The current Canadian regulatory regime is creating a burden for companies innovating within Canada and for those looking to enter the market. Canada’s regulatory environment can be complex. While there are some guidelines in place for labelling, the debate continues around protein quality and the use of common language labelling, which is the use of terms like “meat” and “milk” for plant-based products. Additionally, mandatory fortification of plant-based meat analogues is unique to Canada, which requires those looking to enter this market with a product intended to replicate an animal-based product and label it as such to develop specific formulations to be compliant. Mandatory fortification can often impact the taste and quality of products as well.

“We have the responsibility to advocate for regulations governing plant-based foods”

This burden is not unique to Canada. Denomination challenge issues exist all over the globe – with a list of examples too long to get into. When we reference the evolving consumer, this is a piece of it. Regulations need to better represent the evolved consumer, be more reflective of contemporary eating patterns and ultimately be more in line with where consumers have moved to.

Last fall, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released guidance for labelling simulated meat and poultry products. This has provided some flexibility and clarity and was a good first step, but it is not a replacement for regulatory modernization. It is our understanding that they will shortly be issuing a consultation on guidance for plant-based beverages and eggs, as well.

Through our efforts in Canada, we have made progress, but there is still work to be done. That means ensuring clarity and as much flexibility as possible within the confines of the current regulatory regime until modernization of the regulations is possible.

Unlike the US, which has a very fragmented regulatory landscape, regulations are set federally within Canada, so PBFC continues to work across the federal government to support the interests of our members.

Gardein_fishless-fillet
©Gardein

What are PBFC’s strategic goals for the next five years? How do you envision the evolution of the plant-based food sector in Canada?

We are just past the mid-point of our three-year strategic plan. The initiatives laid out in the plan continue to be our focus and this was just validated by a survey conducted of our members.

  • Regulatory modernization remains paramount, ensuring fairness and flexibility to accommodate evolving consumer trends and support the innovation and growth of the plant-based foods industry.
  • Supporting our members with insights and learning that helps them to build their businesses.
  • Leading the conversation on plant-based foods in Canada, focusing on the benefits, opportunities and what is required to make plant-based foods more available.

A key point to remember about plant-based foods is that while fairly new to North America, they have been a primary source of nutrition and sustenance in other countries around the world for centuries. As people continue to migrate from one region to another these eating patterns are changing. Canada is a very multicultural country, with new Canadians coming from regions where diets are already predominantly plant-based.

“More than half of each generational cohort in Canada is consuming plant-based foods”

At the same time, although more than half of each generational cohort in Canada is consuming plant-based foods, the heaviest is among GenZ and Millenials. This bodes well for greater adoption of plant-based foods as they introduce their children to these products or potentially influence their parents.

Ten years ago, plant-based foods were a fringe segment with limited space in the grocery store. Now mainstream, with plant-based options in almost every category and being consumed by many for a variety of reasons beyond lifestyle, the industry will continue to grow.

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