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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Independent cheese producers are a dying breed

My wife and I have been buying locally produced Bright Brand cheese.

Recently, a local journalist surprised me by tweeting: "Really wish @LoblawsON would stop displacing quality Canadian products like Armstrong Cheese from its shelves with yet more PC brands."

I was surprised for three reasons: One, I've never been all that fond of Armstrong Cheese. Two, I'd assumed  Armstrong Cheese was what I call an industrial cheese made by either Saputo or Parmalat. And three I would not be surprised to learn that both the PC cheese and the Armstrong cheese are from the same cheese producer. (I'm not saying they are. I'm only saying that it would not surprise me.)

As a boy, my parents used to vacation in eastern Ontario. My father was raised there and after he married my mom they had a farm so near Alexandria that the town railway station could be seen from my parent's farmhouse. One of my uncles stayed in the area and my parents still had lots of friends living there and so we visited regularly.

One of my parent's friend was a cheesemaker. I loved going to his cheese factory and sampling the still warm cheese curds floating in the remaining whey. I was a kid who understood well what Miss Muffet was enjoying when surprised by the spider. She was eating squeaky cheese.

Today, that cheese factory is gone. It was bought and closed by Kraft Foods, I was told. My dad's friend made out O.K. Kraft paid him a fair price but the factory and the local jobs it provided disappeared. It was a loss for the community and for the area.

The story of Kraft Foods is a whole other story. Follow the link. It's an interesting tale. Kraft is credited with inventing processed cheese. I had a friend who worked for Kraft in Montreal and he was amazed at the magic the company could perform with cheese. It was good cheese in and Velveeta out. An amazing, if somewhat backward, process.

Today the three big names in the cheese industry are Saputo, Agropur and Parmalat. When I think of Saputo it may not be fair but I think of cheese plant closures and loss of solid, long-time, community jobs. Saputo bought the Armstrong cheese company some years ago, moved production to Abbottsford, BC, and closed the century-plus operation in Armstrong, BC. 73 local jobs were lost.

The closure in Armstrong was not the only Western Canada closure announced at the time. A total of 254 workers were affected, the CBC reported. Recently, Saputo has been busy closing dairy operations in Eastern Canada. In March the Cape Breton Post reported the closure of the Scotsburn Dairy in Sydney. "It was such a sudden announcement that people are mostly in shock . . . . " 100 workers were affected.

Along with the Sydney closure, other closures were announced in Princeton, Quebec, and Ottawa. In all, 230 workers will be laid off. According to the company, it will realize a savings of approximately $23 million annually after all the closure expenses are covered.

So do you buy Saputo products? Think: Alexis de Portneuf, Armstrong, Baxter, Dairyland, Danscorella, De Lucia, Dragone, DuVillage 1860, Frigo, Kingsey, La Paulina, Neilson Dairy, Nutrilait, Ricrem, Saputo, Stella, Treasure Cave, HOP&GO!, Rondeau and Vachon. Is that the whole list? Not at all. For instance, late last year, Saputo acquired Woolwich Dairy, famous for its goat's milk cheese and Saputo may by the cheesemaker behind many private label products.

If you, like me, thought Black Diamond had the earmarks of an industrial cheese, you may have been surprised to see Black Diamond missing from the above list. Don't be. Black Diamond appears on the Parmalat list of holdings: Astro, Balderson, Beatrice, Black Diamond, Lactantia are all Parmlat-controlled brands.

From the long list of cheese brands all being produced by only two giant cheesemakers, it is clear that quality cheese can be made by the big outfits. So, it is not the quality that is the issue for me. It's the jobs. It's the way of life that is being loss.

So, what does one do? Me, I try and buy from a smaller, independent producer. I like Bright. This is cheese  made by a co-op located in the Bright, Ontario, area near Woodstock. The Bright plant has been in the same location since 1874.

I've even introduced my granddaughters to the fine flavour of a grilled cheese sandwich made with Bright extra old cheddar. I don't make a big fuss about the flavour, I don't draw attention to the fact that this cheese is different, and the two little girls respond by loudly proclaiming their cheese sandwiches are "delish." Of course, it also helps that the Bright cheese I use is a reassuring orange.

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