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A “Global” Twist on “Eat Local”

With two of our three children living outside of Canada, we have been a sounding board for the challenges of trying to eat locally, when you have emigrated from your native country.  For those who went to the US, the changes were small …. Missing Smarties and Tim Horton’s.  Moving to The Netherlands meant not only new and different food, but unrecognizable labels and a foreign language to navigate. Easily recognized brands no longer pointed the way to the ingredients required for home cooking or favorite comfort foods.

This kind of international adaptation is no longer the exception to the rule as the next generations build their career histories and experienced dairy people expand their resumes with jobs farther afield.  Today most who started out on a dairy farm in a small, somewhat isolated rural village have had the opportunity to travel, study and consult in countries beyond the borders of their homeland. This ever moving, international consumer segment, affects everything, not the least of which is producing dairy products to meet local tastes.

Impact of Immigration on North American Food Markets

Most of the North American population growth of the past 20 years is due to immigration. Canada’s annual growth rate in 2011/2012 (+1.1%) exceeded that of other industrialized countries including the United States (+0.7%), Italy (+0.3%) and France (+0.5%). This growth represents a new and growing segment of the food consuming market and opportunities for dairy producers. In the US sales directly from the farm can adapt products more easily than in Canada where increasing the supply managed market means growing a consumer segment. Taking a closer look at the Canadian immigration situation shows that since 2001 most of Canada’s population growth was due to immigration. In 2011, it accounted for 67 percent, according to Statistics Canada, which projects that growth could rely almost entirely on immigration in the future. By 2017, the agency projects one out of every five people could be a visible minority. This raises the question, “How do immigrants fit into or even have the opportunity to buy into the “buy local” proposition?

What’s Missing in Local Markets? How to Find the Taste of Home?

It’s human nature to look for what’s familiar. Amid change, stress and the daily demands of work and family, everyone seeks the comfort of food that is familiar.  While young children in a new country may adapt more quickly to eating the same as their contemporaries, research shows that parents “want something that tastes like home.” If they can’t find those familiar dairy products, their diet switches away from dairy.

Who’s Got Milk?

From the dairy production side, the problem basically comes down to the fact that, without a consumer for the dairy products we produce, the industry is not sustainable. Overlooking the dairy preferences of the immigrant market is short-sighted in planning for the next generation of dairy producers. While great strides are made in genetics, genomics, and dairy management, it will all be pointless if there is no one drinking milk. And yet the questions must be asked, “Who lobbies for milk consumption?” (Read more:  MILK MARKETING: How “Got Milk?” BECAME “Got Lost” and “Got Milk” is becoming “Got More”)

Ethnic Specialist Finds Markets Could Be Hiding in Plain Sight

Sometimes the markets are not as far away or as difficult to supply as we might imagine. Nissim Avraham is an Israeli-born ethnic market specialist for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO). You might ask, “What is an ethnic market specialist?” Basically, Avraham looks for markets – some hiding in plain sight — in Canada’s immigrant population. While working on a project for his M.B.A. at the University of Guelph, his research looked into demand for dairy products for the Middle Eastern community in the Toronto area. Following a presentation to Canadian dairy farmers the first question was, “Why don’t they make their own?” For Avraham, the answer was to point out that there was an enormous opportunity there. “At the time, the Middle Eastern opportunity had a value of 10 million liters (4 million lbs.) of milk in the Toronto area alone.”  From this opening dialog, Avraham got an interview with DFO, and a new job focused on filling demand for the eleven Middle Eastern, South Asian and Chinese populations in Ontario. Today, he’s a popular guy throughout the Canadian provinces, and his successful practices in Ontario are being replicated elsewhere.

Lost in Translation of the Supermarket Aisle

It could be as simple as an added sign or label. Living in a country where every food product has both French and English (explanations), it doesn’t seem problematic to me to let a particular consuming segment clearly understand the dairy products being offered. However, as my immigrant children will tell you, it can be frustrating and time-consuming to try to find products you want in a foreign, to you, supermarket. Looking for familiar dairy products could make a quick shopping trip into a morning or afternoon of hide and seek. One such example is Paneer.

“We have newcomers from Asia shopping for the first time looking for Paneer. They’re vegetarians who drink full-fat milk, eat yogurt, want a higher-fat butter, and would consume nearly double the dairy products in a year that a native North American would. They couldn’t find Paneer in the market, except a cheap version.” Avraham points out that “Paneer is actually pressed ricotta.” Avraham helped an Italian cheesemaker create and label a more traditional Paneer, which quickly took 30% market share in those markets.

Since that first big success, the calls just keep coming. Avraham now consults with dairy processors in other Canadian provinces,  convincing them that rather than making another version of an existing product, they can go after a market already waiting for them.

Targeting, not Changing, Ethnic Markets

Avraham thinks targeting ethnic markets with specific products is something more countries should look into, including the United States.  “Sure, I can advertise a mozzarella or cheddar to different ethnic groups,” Avraham said. “But why would you go there? You think you’re going to change 5,000 years of Chinese tradition? It’s the first generation that we can target with these products.

Certification Clarity

While it may be difficult to find the familiar, it is also challenging when moving to a new culture to find foods that are important to different religions. When the requirements are understood, labels with particular types of certifications provide a shortcut for consumers who would otherwise have to read an often-complicated ingredient list to see whether they can consume products to conform to their religious preferences. Both sides experienced a learning curve. Processors were not familiar with Halal certification, but Avraham describes it as “Kosher-light”, meaning if you fit Kosher certification — a designation many Ontario processors were already comfortable with — you also fit Halal.

Trade Hurdles

Avraham knows Canadian processors who have orders for their ethnic products in the U.S. However, between exporting tariffs and the higher cost of Canadian milk, trying to fill that market from north of the U.S. border is nearly impossible. Of course, it means that there is potential waiting to be realized by American dairy entrepreneurs who merely have to tap into local ethnic demand.

Niche Markets

Developing markets is something of a Catch 22 situation.  Do you invest millions of dollars in developing a new product?  Millions of dollars converting generations of taste buds to an unfamiliar product. Or take the small step route of modifying products to be more aligned with the new immigrant locals.  In the latter case, there is already identifiable models to build from…the popularity is guaranteed. The challenge is making the match that “tastes like home”. While these modified niche markets will never be huge, they do represent an opportunity.  In the Canadian supply management program, it represent more milk that can be made by dairy farmers.

Growing Local Markets

The 62-year old specialist, Nissim Avraham, has been tagged as the ethnic market milkman.  A more fitting title might be market matchmaker, as he brings together distributors, eager to buy, with processors, who need a little coaching in product presentation. Success stories continue to grow:

  • With Avraham’s encouragement, Ontario processors are now making butter ghee, a type of clarified butter; lassi, a fruit-flavoured yogurt drink; and dahi yogurt, a market that has grown from 200,000 to more than two million litres per year.
  • There are now about 25 Ontario cheese and yogurt makers with halal certification.

2.2% Growth

In Ontario, products that Avraham helped introduce are now worth 2.2% of the market.  Not huge. But a start.  It’s the incremental growth that says it’s worthwhile in the modern dairy market. The hardest part is having the decision makers recognize the opportunity.

The Bullvine Bottom Line – Eating locally!  Together!!

Regardless of the culture you were born in, trading recipes and eating homegrown and locally grown foods is not only healthy but also an excellent way to build community. Shopping, sharing and eating together creates connections that are good for everyone involved. We may not recognize the opportunities an ethnic market specialist points out but, if the dairy industry doesn’t open itself up to these new markets, we could go from “Got Milk!” to “Not Milk!”


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