CPMA president Ron Lemaire

Since the pandemic began, the grocery industry has been at the forefront, rapidly adapting and implementing measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. “In Their Own Words”  brings the behind-the-scenes stories of retailers and suppliers to Grocery Business' readers.

Ron Lemaire, president, Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA)

Crisis Leadership Initiatives

The COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions on business operations throughout our supply chain, and the resulting impact on the worldwide market, created change on an international scale never seen before. Given how globally intertwined our economy has become, this situation could have resulted in extreme consequences, but what we have seen emerge is a produce community ready to adjust and pivot to navigate through a crisis that continues to evolve.

At the end of 2019, our produce supply chain was operating seamlessly, as it normally does, not only domestically, but with our international trading partners as well.

Upon the beginning of shutdowns in Canada in mid-March, the food service sector was the first to feel the impact of the pandemic restrictions. As the entire produce industry was rapidly mobilizing and adapting based on daily changes in government regulations and policies, CPMA was on top of these changes, working as a conduit between our members and the industry, government, and consumers, ensuring flow of accurate information between all of our stakeholders.

Our first step was to set up our COVID-19 Updates page on the CPMA website, to offer current, validated and relevant material to our members and the broader produce sector. We also introduced biweekly COVID-19 produce industry update emails to our membership to ensure they remain informed of the latest pandemic-related changes affecting our sector.

CPMA was also engaged with members and government partners to find channels for surplus food created by newly implemented restrictions and challenges for the charitable sector related to volunteers and distribution. We brought together key industry players and initiated the process to find a path forward to support at-risk Canadians during these times of need.

The association also had to change, with staff having to work from home and system changes required to continue to serve our members’ best interests, and while we were not travelling or physically in the office, we were able to continue our operations and meet the pace of change our members were living with. We have many different facets to our association, and each has its different needs. Our membership includes businesses representing all categories of the produce supply chain, from growers, packers and shippers, to transportation, importers and exporters, to processors, foodservice and retail, and also includes packaging and other allied industries.

In all of these areas, we are fortunate to have developed many positive working relationships with key contacts from departments that affect our different member categories across the fresh fruit and vegetable sector’s operations, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Health Canada, Transport Canada, Farm Credit Canada, Finance Canada, and Public Safety Canada. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve remained actively engaged with these Government branches to ensure policy changes do not adversely affect our industry.

In addition to supporting our membership, we bring the industry together through our flagship annual event, the CPMA Convention and Trade Show. Early on, while the scope of this virus was still trying to be assessed, there was hope to still run this event, but it became evident that we needed to protect our industry and members and we cancelled it on March 20, 2020.

CPMA has a large base of followers within our consumer and health professional network, called Half Your Plate. While the pandemic was evolving, the Half Your Plate team was hard at work developing informative resources for consumers, including blogs, social media content and a web page to dispel myths and offer advice on fruit and vegetable consumption during the pandemic.

Throughout all the obstacles we have faced, the key has been to keep open lines of communication with all stakeholders – something we always strive to do at CPMA. 

Impact on the supply chain and successes emerging from the challenges

As quarantine protocols began to be set in place by the government, many fears were expressed on behalf of our membership as to how the food supply that we rely on being shipped to or from Canada would continue to function. We immediately launched a CPMA member survey to allow feedback on the most critical concerns being voiced by our membership, and the results confirmed our direction for our advocacy work.

We’ve also been active in understanding how Canadians are feeling. Early on, we found that 54 per cent of Canadians were cooking more, 66 per cent were shopping less than usual and 47 per cent were feeling a moderate or high financial impact as a result of the pandemic. We also hosted a webinar to examine these survey results with one of our research partners, Abacus Data. We continue to utilize our research portfolio, available to members on the CPMA Community web page, to track changes in behaviours and attitudes surrounding COVID-19.

For our members’ operations, issues including labour and workforce, customs and border issues, personal protective equipment (PPE), food surplus, access to information, and more came to the forefront of our sector’s concerns and I’m proud to say that CPMA was able to address all of these issues on behalf of our members and industry.

  • Labour: CPMA worked closely with Government and other industry associations to get protocols put in place to allow foreign workers to come into Canada, and for Government to provide financial support for the employers of these workers to help cover the costs of the quarantine period.
  • Customs/border: We successfully called for flexibility in payment deadlines of customs duties and taxes, including through a letter sent to CBSA and the Department of Finance. Government deferred the payments for customs duties and taxes to June 2020.
  • PPE: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been advocating for government supports for costs related to PPE and other operational changes that COVID-19 has imposed on our members. While more details and additional supports are needed, the government’s Emergency Processing Fund is a welcomed action in the right direction. Recently, the Government of Canada also launched a new web hub to bring together available resources for organizations buying and selling personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Food rescue: CPMA is taking a lead role in advocating for, and helping to develop a model, for connecting surplus food with those who need it. This system would mitigate losses for growers, while also improving food security for the most vulnerable Canadians.
  • Resources to members and consumers: A large part of our work has been connecting our members with the information, resources, and financial supports they need to navigate the pandemic – this includes our webpage, regular member bulletins, and documents like our template letters for essential workers, our government financial supports document, our emergency preparedness document and much more.
  • Collaboration with other organizations: We could not go without recognizing the collaborative efforts we have made with other agricultural and supply chain organizations that have become increasingly important for CPMA

Business takeaways from this experience

These challenges are far from over, as we’re already hearing of second waves of the virus occurring in various areas around the world. With that being said, it is important to take a step back from where we began, pre-quarantine. Without trying to oversimplify these complex matters, I would attribute the success of our Association and industry throughout the pandemic thus far to three C’s: communication, collaboration and commitment.

We’ve implemented a multi-pronged communication approach, utilizing all of the channels we have at our fingertips including member e-bulletins, webinars, podcasts, direct conversations, and printed guidance. The CPMA staff has come together under pressure to deliver results to our members.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of collaboration between competitors within our sector, industry associations, different branches of government, and all levels of government – municipal, provincial, national and international.

This level of collaboration has brought into the spotlight the side of our industry that we witness firsthand every day: hard work, intelligence and generosity, demonstrated by our members throughout every segment of the produce supply chain. Together, we work to ensure that all Canadians have access to safe and healthy fruits and vegetables.

We are deeply committed to ensuring the continuity of the produce supply chain, just as our members are committed to feeding Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast. The efforts being put forth throughout the pandemic have been nothing short of spectacular, on all fronts, and this level of commitment from within our office and all throughout the supply chain has been paramount to our accomplishments the past few months.

CPMA turned 95 years old this year and the association’s roots grow deep, just like the heritage of those who have been bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to our tables for hundreds of years. I would particularly like to thank our volunteer leadership team on our Board of Directors and committees, as well as our members who selflessly offered their 2020 CPMA Convention and Trade Show sponsorship funds to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on CPMA’s continuing operations, for their incredible support thus far. I know our sector will emerge stronger following this pandemic.

With every new set of challenges, new opportunities also arise. We have seen an exponential growth in online shopping and click-and-collect services in our industry. Since the implementation of pandemic restrictions, we have seen consumers doing less in-store browsing, and more buying from a prepared list, with specific intent of use. We have also seen more bulk purchases, and inclination to more packaged foods, due to the perception of safety through packaging. While these habits are again starting to change and revert to some level of normalcy, Canadian consumers remain vigilant.

These consumer changes and new habits that we’ve grown accustomed to after months of quarantine and isolation have influenced our lifestyles. We have been learning and changing at every step along the way, not only for the purpose of survival – literally, and business-wise – but also in order to become more aware and ready for what might ensue.

There has been an immense amount of preparation put forth for the reopening stages of our businesses and CPMA is watching and listening closely. Our research partners are supporting our understanding of this transition back towards larger gatherings by surveying and analyzing behaviours of consumers, and we will continue to share these insights with our members.

At CPMA, we’re embracing our new circumstances and we’re eager to grow our members’ businesses every day.

 

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