In an increasingly plant-forward landscape, Canadian operators are adapting to sustainability pressures and consumer demand for ethical and locally sourced ingredients. Zero-waste approaches and outright bans on single-use plastics are only a few of the ways foodservice professionals are approaching this demand, but one of the most glaring current issues in Canadian foodservice is meat production.
The Government of Canada’s 2019 Executive Summary on Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks claims agriculture accounted for 8.4 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions (data from when the original study was carried out in 2017). This is a relatively minor percentage compared to other sources of greenhouse gas (such as the energy sector, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of emissions), but the question remains: is meat inherently unsustainable?
According to Chicago-based Technomic’s latest research, sustainability may not be as prevalent in the minds of Canadian diners when choosing a meat-heavy dish as we think. Taken from the 2019 Canadian Centre of the Plate Consumer Trend Report (which covers beef, pork, poultry and plant-based proteins), 46 per cent of beef eaters and 42 per cent of pork eaters agreed (or completely agreed) it’s important animals were treated humanely — compared to 38 per cent of beef eaters and 36 per cent of pork eaters who believed their food should not negatively impact the environment.
Anne Mills, Technomic’s senior manager of Consumer Insights, says creativity is key when making these meats the stars of your plate.
“In spite of the growing plant-based trend, beef and pork remain a central part of consumers’ diets,” she explains. “Going forward, alternative proteins will increasingly encroach on beef’s and pork’s share of the plate. To help maintain interest in beef and pork, brands can create unique dishes that feature different cuts of meat or different
flavours. Operators can also work with their suppliers to offer beef and pork that’s more sustainable and natural (i.e., free of additives) and integrate this information into their marketing messaging.”
Throughout the country, mainstream restaurant suppliers, as well as craft butchers, are sourcing ethically-raised and local beef and lamb for foodservice, making it easier than ever before to promote these meats on menus and get creative with less expensive or unusual cuts.
At Sanagans Meat Locker, which boasts two locations in downtown Toronto, owner Peter Sanagan works directly with farmers to supply local meats and meat products. Featuring beef from Ontario-based farms allows for increased traceability and quality control for Sanagans, while also supporting the local economy. Sourcing local beef, pork and lamb will also benefit marketing efforts and support the creative process during times of menu development. Slow-cooking beef cuts, such as brisket, are inexpensive, delicious and smaller portions go a long way, while lesser known steaks, such as skirt or flank, are also less expensive and, through rubs or marinades, can take on any almost any flavour combination.
In Calgary, chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson co-own and operate several well-known restaurants: CHARCUT Roast House, Charbar, Alley Burger, Rooftop Bar at Simmons and the newly opened Chix Eggshop. While some of these operations are widely known for meat-forward menus — DeSousa and Jackson famously and unabashedly enjoy making sausages, charcuterie and rotisserie-style meat dishes — DeSousa says they try and provide something for every diet.
CHARCUT, considered one of Canada’s most highly successful meat-centric restaurants, has been serving Calgarians for 10 years with dishes such as Alberta Beef Feature Steak (served with parmesan fries and chimichurri, $29). Its locally driven ethos and unique approach to in-house butchered and cured meats sets it apart from similar meat-focused operations.
“The summer before [we opened] CHARCUT, John and I moved back to Calgary after working abroad for over 10 years,” DeSousa says. “We’d been living in San Francisco prior to moving home and — I have to admit — were quite nervous about moving back to a shorter growing climate. We ended up spending the summer visiting more than 40 farms in 40 days; getting to know our local farmers, ranchers and artisan producers. We were thrilled to discover so many amazing foods being produced in Alberta. [Now,] 10 years later, we’re still using a lot of these products [in our restaurants].”
Listing Lethbridge-based Lambtastic and Ewenique Farm as its main lamb suppliers and — because one or two farms would not be able to keep up with the demand of its restaurants — a co-operative of local farms for their larger cuts of beef and pork, DeSousa and Jackson also use local suppliers for goat’s milk, potatoes, fish and vegetables.
“Chefs and restaurateurs should always pay attention to where their products are coming from,” DeSousa says. “Ask questions like: how are these animals being raised? What are they eating? How much time are they spending outside? I don’t think farmers need to be concerned [about the future of meat in Canada]; the concern should be on raising animals in a more natural and sustainable environment.”
Over the past several decades, agricultural efforts within the Maritimes have diminished, with many farms shutting down due to the financial, physical and emotional strain. Some farmers; however, have found ways to survive — even thrive — amidst these difficulties.
Northumberland Lamb is a cooperative of farmers from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Through their work with local foodservice operators and a contract with major grocery chain Sobeys, the group has found a way to continue the work they enjoy while making a profit.
“We’re a group of sheep producers from the Maritimes and, together, we’ve been raising sheep and marketing lamb since 1982,” says manager Michael Isenor. “[Originally] it was a way to market and have access to the many shops and restaurants in the region.”
One farmer in the Maritime provinces would have difficulty marketing their lamb, maintaining a website and processing consistent cuts for customers, so the Nova Scotia-based cooperative takes care of the business aspects, leaving the member farmers to focus on producing lamb of the highest possible quality.
“We have a federally inspected processing plant,” Isenor explains. “For many years, we were provincially inspected, but around five years ago we managed to get federal inspections. This has enabled us to work with Sobeys’ warehouses — they can send it wherever in the country they like.”
Aside from the federally fixed standards of quality and HACCP regulations, Northumberland Lamb also sets a standard of quality (concerning the weight, level of tenderness and overall quality of the lamb) to which members must adhere. At Brook Ridge Farm in Antigonish, N.S., farmer Rhonda McCarron speaks highly of the cooperative, which she believes helps farmers connect to the consumer to help tell their story. “It’s extremely important that we tell people what we do and stand behind the product we produce and be proud of it,” she says.
Isenor maintains that demand for their product has been slow and steady over the years and they haven’t noticed a decrease in interest as meat and plant-based foods become more equal in popularity.
“Our customers have come to trust our product,” he says. “There’s lots of lamb in the market besides ours, but when you’re looking for fresh local lamb, there isn’t as much. It’s amazing we’ve been able to do this, but it’s taken decades of experience and sticking with it — many said we couldn’t do it, but we stuck with it.”
Although plant-based main courses continue to surge in popularity within Canadian foodservice, Canadian pork is providing serious competition. According to Ottawa-based Canada Pork International, Canadians consume about 65 kilos of meat annually, with pork representing approximately 24 per cent of overall consumption over the past decade. Also, despite an increase in Canadian pork exports in recent times, Canada remains the number-1 destination (by volume) for Canadian pork. Kevin Mosser, director, National Marketing for Canada Pork International, says pork farmers have strict ethical and environmental standards to which they must adhere.
“Consumers are looking for pork products that are safe, nutritious, taste great, that have been raised responsibly and done so in practises that are honest and transparent,” he says. “Canada has an internationally respected food-safety system and consumers around the world rank Canadian food among the safest. In 2015, the Canadian pork industry introduced the Verified Canadian Pork program, which tells consumers pork farmers and Canadian pork processors are doing the right things andthat there are systems in place to ensure that.”
When it comes to pork, diversifying menu items with innovative cuts, styles and flavour combinations is a great place to start. Mosser maintains pork is not only a more cost-effective option for foodservice operators — it’s also considered a lower-emission meat.
“Canadian pork producers are committed to environmental sustainability,” he says. “This involves preserving ecosystems and resources, such as soil and water, as well as minimizing the environmental impacts of their activities through the implementation of beneficial agricultural practices. In 2018, an environmental life-cycle assessment of Canadian pork production was completed. It showed the Canadian pork footprint is among the lowest in the world.”
Like in many other areas of Canadian foodservice, technology has become an integral aspect of sustainable farming. From the creation of biofuels from animal waste to helping farmers streamline manual work so they can give their animals more attention, different applications have also been developed to help connect farmers with consumers.
TruLOCAL is a business that achieves this through its online-based subscription meat-box deliveries. Marc Lafleur, CEO of TruLOCAL, felt there was a gap in the e-commerce market for consumers looking to purchase high-quality, local meat.
Lafleur saw massive investments being made in e-commerce operations, but nothing was helping to connect consumers to their food sources. TruLOCAL works by partnering with small, family-run farms in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta that specialize in value-added meats. When a customer inserts their postal code onto the website, registered farmers within their locality are listed.
“I thought, if we were to take best practices from other e-commerce businesses and fit it into the meat space, there was a big gap we could fill,” he explains. “Demand for meat isn’t going down — demand for higher-quality meat has risen.”
Reporting a 300-per-cent increase in sales in the last year, TruLOCAL is not only helping Canadian consumers source high-quality meat with complete traceability, it’s helping farmers by marketing their product and handling online sales. Aaron MacDonald of Heritage Beef Co. in Peterborough, Ont. says when he was approached by Lafleur, the timing was perfect.
“We were getting really frustrated — we’re farmers, but now we also have to be businesspeople and have a website and an online presence. It was becoming exhausting for us,” he says. “We were doing our own online shipping and it was brutal — we didn’t have a good set-up. When Marc called, I told him if he could handle the online stuff, we’d be happy to work with him.”
For Lafleur, TruLOCAL is a solutions-based operation.
“We’re not a meat company; we operate as a tech company — what we want to do is connect the product to consumers,” he says. “We’re able to provide traceability and answers.”
Written by Janine Kennedy