It gets confusing when we talk about food. There is fresh food that comes from the farm and makes it directly into our homes – like apples and potatoes – and then there is an enormous part of the food supply chain known as food and beverage processing industry. In fact, about 65% of all the food leaving a farm makes its way into a processing facility. The other 35% is considered fresh product that finds its way into your home via a grocery store, direct farm purchase or at a restaurant.
In Ontario, there are about 3,800 processor businesses with anywhere from a couple employees through to thousands. It seems to be a best kept secret that these businesses are the top employer of the province, with more than 120,000 people working. Over 50% of the businesses are located in the Greater Toronto Area but otherwise you can find them across Ontario in urban and rural regions. The majority of people working in these businesses are called frontline workers – people who provide an essential service by keeping us healthy, safe and fed. These are the women and men working in facilities preparing food for us.
Often when we think about frontline food workers on the job, we imagine large facilities with high production capacity. What’s interesting, is that about 90% of all processing businesses in the province are actually small-medium-sized which means they have less than 500 people employees. These are often family-owned, close knit businesses like Hans Dairy that makes specialized yogurt, smoothies and lassi for their South Asian customers in Ontario. For the remaining 10% of businesses in the province, they are categorized as large with over 500 employees. Some of these businesses, like Maple Leaf Foods – a leading consumer protein company in Canada – are known around the world for a being a leader in safe, high quality food production and also sustainability.
Regardless of size, what’s fascinating about food and beverage processing is the huge range of products that fall within the general category. When that 65% of farmer products arrives at a processor door, it’s time to make value added food and beverages. For businesses like Cargill and Maple Lodge Farms, they receive cattle and chickens for processing from a livestock farmer. And for a vegetable processing operation, what starts as a bunch of harvested carrots from a horticultural farmer may end up as packaged baby carrots.
If we shift our thinking to even more complex food processing we might imagine a ready-to-heat lasagna or a lovely Chardonnay from Prince Edward County. Take it a step farther and consider the spectrum of baked goods from a simple loaf of bread to a vegan red velvet cupcake. There are literally thousands of food and beverage products made by Ontario processors. From commodity staples like milk and pasta through to specialty ethnic and premium products.
The diagram below gives a great snapshot of how the food supply chain in Canada works. It also highlights the role of manufacturers and more importantly, the frontline workers of the food and beverage processing industry at the heart of these businesses.