Honourable members of the Standing Committee on Health, on behalf of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak today about the Canadian response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
CPMA is a 95-year-old, not-for-profit trade association representing over 860 companies doing business in Canada, supporting roughly 249,000 jobs. We are responsible for 90% of the fresh fruit and vegetables purchased by Canadians.
Our comments reflect a complex supply chain that works tirelessly to provide fresh fruit and vegetables across Canada. I will speak to the impact of COVID-19 as it relates to the continuity and integrity of the fresh produce supply chain and food security in Canada. These areas of impact include consumer sentiment, mental health, food security, food labelling, infrastructure, regulatory modernization, trade, and sustainability including plastic packaging.
To understand how the current pandemic is affecting consumers, and by extension the produce supply chain, I will note what CPMA's polling firm, Abacus Data, found when surveying Canadians just over 12 days ago. No surprise, 76% of Canadians feel anxious and 45% are now feeling lonely. The majority of Canadians feel this pandemic will last beyond three months, putting greater mental stress upon them. Abacus also noted that 47% of Canadians are feeling the impact financially.
CPMA has seen Canadians doing more targeted shopping resulting in larger baskets with a focus on longevity, so more shelf-stable products like canned and frozen. For fresh items, the focus is more on traditional staples such as potatoes, root vegetables and apples.
What we also know is Canadians are focusing on safety. For many this translates into more packaging, on which I will speak later.
Interestingly, the pandemic has also driven more consumers to do more home cooking. The CPMA consumer program Half Your Plate is aligned with Canada's new food guide and, given that 54% of Canadians are now cooking more at home, CPMA has developed tools to support them. This includes a one-page produce storage guide that simplifies the best way to store produce, and information on how to safely and properly handle produce when they get it home from the store. We've increased the amount of information involving children in the kitchen, including easy recipes, tips for parents and links to resources.
While there's a perception that all fruits and vegetables are expensive, the association provides Canadians with shopping tips to get the best value from their basket.
With Canadian buying patterns shifting during the pandemic, we've seen retail sales up 8% for vegetables and 5% for fruit, but consumers are spending less time browsing grocery stores and unique items and the sales of short-term shelf-life products or specialty items are lower.
Given the closure of many food service operations, there has been a dramatic impact on the entire sector, which represents 30% of our market. There has been some rebound with delivery options, but the market is still very fragile.
In a recent industry survey, Canadians say that they look forward to visiting restaurants again but are concerned about personal safety once businesses reopen. While consumer buying patterns have changed, food security has been top of mind during the pandemic.
With many Canadians' employment status changing, there is an increased reliance on food banks. The produce industry is aware of this issue and has significantly increased levels of donation to help. Unfortunately, food banks and other food charities still have gaps. While there is plenty of food to donate, many charities do not have the necessary cooler facilities to handle the volume of fresh produce, resulting in losses of donated products, or the charity declines the offer of product donation. Also, the lack of volunteers who would normally support their services to receive, pack and ship much of the product is still a challenge.
Throughout everything there are positives, including flexibility on labelling. The larger-format items typically destined and labelled for food service establishments are now allowed to be sold through other channels. This is a positive.
We are aware that work is also being done by CFIA to enable some flexibility in consumer package labelling where it does not affect health and safety. This is also supported by CPMA.
I'd like to turn now to recovery. Business continuity will be challenging as we transition into the post-COVID world. The simple decision to reopen for some parts of our supply chain will be the first step, and for many it will not be possible.
Government programs created to support the produce industry must be based on flexibility and longevity to minimize losses to the industry. The complexity and variability of the industry means program adaptability, on both a large and small scale, must be incorporated into any programs moving forward.
To that end, another area of impact to the produce supply chain that influences food production is foreign labour. Access to temporary foreign workers, TFWs, which, early in the pandemic, was the single most significant threat to food production, food security and the integrity of the food supply chain, remains an issue. While the issue of labour has been addressed to a point, there is still a need to revisit the protocols for workers in Canada. TFW protocols vary from municipality to municipality. More work must be done to support an efficient model for managing and streamlining isolation protocols. Audits from multiple levels are also now being implemented, and consistency is essential. The addition of rapid testing for essential farm workers to ensure business continuity and production is also an area of interest.
From the start of the pandemic in Canada, CPMA members worked diligently to perform and implement measures that would protect employees, the public and the food system. In a recent member survey, access to personal protective equipment was the number one area of concern. Public health and public safety guidelines have resulted in member companies' need for much greater access to cleaning, sanitation products and PPE.
A new supply chain for these products is vital. Organizations cannot continue to operate without appropriate cleaning and sanitation in order to ensure food and employee safety. A self-sufficient Canadian PPE supply chain should be one of the government's long-term goals.
We are also supportive of the Public Health Agency of Canada developing guidance regarding the type of PPE required based on the risks associated with various activities and environments found in Canadian businesses.
Testing of employees for the COVID-19 virus or symptoms of infections should be available to employers within our sector, which is designated an essential service. Once sufficient and affordable testing equipment is available, the Public Health Agency of Canada should create guidance to support businesses implementing point-of-care tests.
Earlier I noted plastics as packaging. CPMA is deeply engaged in addressing problematic single-use plastics in our sector. These are important tools that minimize contact between consumers and commodities or food items.
Since the COVID outbreak, consumers have demonstrated a desire for plastic packaging by increasing their purchases of these items. We do not know how this will change post-COVID, but we need to recognize this shift today and the need for systems to address collection and recycling of these products.
I urge the government not to add plastics to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act list of toxic substances. More review is necessary. We suggest a focus on working with industry to identify and eliminate problematic single-use packaging while improving recycling and recovery of plastics across Canada, which will provide the best possible outcomes.
During this pandemic, we also have realized our reliance on global trade. To ensure the ongoing viability of the food system, we need a strong domestic and global strategy. Market access is critically important to the Canadian produce sector. For successful access to key markets, the supply chain linkages of transportation, border access and ports of entry and exit must be maintained. In addition, international trade agreements, phytosanitary rules and co-operation between governments must continue to be harmonized. The supply chain is multinational, so a failure in one area has consequences along the entire supply chain.
CPMA encourages the government to undertake a pandemic post-mortem in partnership with industry to help understand how this crisis affected Canadians and Canadian industry so that we can better prepare for the next occurrence. Overall, we have all gone through a tremendous challenge in a hyper timeline.
The new business environment has added costs to our entire supply chain that will be difficult to quantify and to bear. In the end, we do know one thing: Food will cost more.
In closing, I want to recognize the extraordinary efforts of government, both elected and public servants, throughout these unprecedented times.
Thank you for your time. I'd be happy to answer any questions that you may have.