Scott Wiens doesn’t ponder why chickens cross roads. He’s more concerned about them crossing borders.
Wiens, who concluded his term as chair of the Alberta Chicken Producers on Tuesday, was in Red Deer this week for the organization’s annual general meeting. The Edmonton-area poultry farmer acknowledged that his industry is vulnerable to foreign imports — especially given the high Canadian dollar.
“The opportunity for product dumping of American, Brazilian, Thai, Chinese chicken is very real,” said Wiens.
The threat extends beyond whole chickens, which are subject to tariff rate quotas. Canadian companies that process chicken products are often at a competitive disadvantage relative to their foreign counterparts, he said.
That’s because they often face higher labour costs, and more rigorous health and safety standards.
“When you start going internationally, those standards don’t always apply,” said Wiens.
Climate is also a factor, he said, because it results in higher production costs here. Chickens elsewhere are often raised in barns that aren’t even enclosed.
“I don’t how you ensure animal care or food safety in an environment where they’re exposed to anything and everything.”
Wiens thinks there are other reasons to make sure Canada’s poultry industry remains strong and viable, including the importance of having a value-added ag industry.
“It truly becomes a discussion of whether or not we want to have food processed by Canadians at home, or whether we’re more interested in importing our proteins.”
He pointed to the problems that the Canadian beef industry faced after the BSE crisis hit and domestic processing capacity proved far too small to absorb the stranded animals.
The Alberta Chicken Producers is one of four poultry industry associations that meet at the same time every year in Red Deer. The others are the Alberta Turkey Producers, the Alberta Egg Producers and the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers.
Darren Ference, chairman of the Alberta Turkey Producers, said his industry hasn’t really been affected by foreign production.
“There’s no real dumping or anything going on in the turkey industry. Our stocks are at a very good level; it’s very economical for the producer and the consumer, and profitable for the processors at the moment.”
This situation is a welcome change from a few years ago, when the recession curbed demand for turkey and other meat products. That let to a surplus and low prices.
“We’ve balanced the supply and balanced the price since,” said Ference.
Wiens described a similar situation in his industry.
“Right now, conditions are favourable for producers to be making a decent return.”
Ference, who farms near Consort but raises poultry at Gibbons, said sales of whole turkeys haven’t varied much over the last 40 years.
“The major growth is in the processing,” he said, listing ground turkey, turkey sausages, turkey bacon and deli meats as products that are gaining in popularity.
He added that a growing consumer preference for lean white meats has helped boost demand.
Wiens said chicken producers should also benefit from consumers’ positive perception of poultry.
“Given its nutrition, given it’s environmental footprint and that kind of thing, there’s room to grow,” he said.
Wiens and Ference acknowledged that their organizations are always wary about threats to the supply-management systems in which they operate. But Wiens pointed out that Canada has negotiated a number of bilateral international trade agreements in recent years and the country’s supply management systems have not been compromised.
“I see no evidence that the federal government can’t determine a trade deal with those countries and not find a way to accommodate our industry,” he said, adding that the Canadian government has backed the poultry industries.
We have government support now and I think it’ll be maintained in the future.”
There are about 220 chicken producers in Alberta, said Wiens. In the case of the turkey industry, farmers number about 47, said Ference.
The two men said it’s advantageous for their organizations and the Alberta Egg Producers and Hatching Egg Producers to meet at the same time and location.
“It works out well having everyone come together,” said Ference.
“As long as I can remember we’ve been doing this format,” added Wiens.