We should relish taking the fight beyond ketchup

Nice article to read on the continuing battle to prepare Canadian foods in Canada as Ontario’s food woes stretch beyond one section of the condiment aisle. This an article from Jennifer Wells.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s tweet last week re: the French’s ketchup brouhaha may have been meant as the last word on the subject. But really, it’s just the beginning of a conversation.

It’s time for Ms. Wynne to start thinking about pickles.

But we’ll get to that.

Wynne was photographed at the checkout counter of a supermarket, bagging her bottles of French’s, with the accompanying tweet: “Proud to buy Ontario-grown. We’ve invested in Leamington’s Highbury Canco plant where French’s ketchup is made!”

A stickler for accuracy will point out those bottles of French’s actually rolled off a processing line in Ohio. But the tomato innards are straight out of Leamington and therefore this is seen as a win for Canadian tomato farmers, if not for home-grown processing.

Heinz, you may recall, started making ketchup in Leamington (long growing season; lots of sunshine) in 1910, a year after the Leamington factory opened. “Home of Canada’s Finest Ketchup” was the town’s proud claim for more than a century until Warren (he seems like such a nice man) Buffett partnered with Jorge Paulo Lemann’s 3G Capital in a takeover of H. J. Heinz Co. BusinessWeek proclaimed that “Lemann” was “shorthand for pitiless efficiencies.” Bloomberg cheekily declared him the world’s most interesting billionaire. The locals in Leamington decried the ruthlessness of the new owners’ decision to shutter the plant.

“They’re looking at the bottom line all the time,” one resident told me for an ebook (really) that I was writing on ketchup. “They don’t look at the impact on people. These equity firms look at it in a very isolated environment of just numbers. But numbers have faces, and they have families, and they have schools to go to.”

“You’re not going to control the Buffetts and the 3Gs of the world,” one tomato farmer told me. “I hope it bites them in the ass. I really do.”

We had a great many conversations discussing whether Canadian Heinz ketchup was less sweet than its U.S. counterpart. There is much to be discussed on the taste, and health, differentials between sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

The good news was that a group of private investors, including plant manager Sam Diab, bought the plant, saving, initially, a third of the work force, with the contractual understanding that ketchup would not be included in the product lines. That doesn’t prevent Highbury Canco from selling paste to French’s — ergo the curious state of affairs where the paste gets shipped to the U.S. in bulk and shipped back, with some spice and sugar added in, in bottles.

It was Canadian Press that broke the news of an internal Loblaws memo detailing the grocery giant’s decision to cease selling the upstart French’s ketchup “because it is cannibalizing the sales of PC ketchup.” Loblaws says the memo was “misinformed.” After a predictable social media storm — Facebook, viral videos, a politician here and there — French’s is now back in the mix among the chain’s narrow ketchup offerings.

(In extremely unscientific taste tests, French’s can be described as less sweet, and more tomatoey, than Heinz.)

It’s cheering to see Ontario consumers supporting Ontario-grown. And it was an obvious photo op for the premier.

But it’s important that the discussion not end there.

Across the aisle from the ketchups and mustards, the premier might be interested in checking out a jar of Loblaws “no name” sweet green relish. Or “dill chips.” Or baby dills. Or the inimitable polskie ogórki.

On the back of each yellow label on all of those products the words “Product of India” are clearly stamped.

Now, Ontario is just as adept at growing cucumbers as it is at growing tomatoes. And the pickle business took a woeful hit after J. M. Smucker, another American outfit, closed the plant in Dunnville late in 2011.

Once again, Canadian production lost to the America-first focus. It’s enough to make one think that the next time Wynne checks out of the grocery line she might ask the question that most of us do: now, what is it that I’ve forgotten? It’s the whole local food movement that should be grabbing her attention. Perhaps a personal letter to Galen Weston Jr. is on order.