MEALsource, the only non-profit health care purchasing group in the province (perhaps even in the country) is working hard to get more Ontario-grown food into hospitals, long-term care and other health care facilities. The agency, based in Brantford, Ontario and part of the St. Joseph’s Health System, has an active and ongoing goal to educate processors – and everyone else in agriculture – about health care institution contracts and help bidders prepare for the Request for Proposals (RFP) process.
“There are always Ontario companies bidding for turkey contracts,” notes MEALsource contract specialist Wendy Smith. “And they are successful. The turkey folks have a good understanding of how we do business and they want a piece of it.” Smith notes that all the raw egg MEALsource contracts are currently served by Ontario companies and that there’s regular Ontario participation for cooked egg items.
However, Smith says “We are not getting nearly enough Ontario bids for raw and cooked chicken. There were no Ontario-based bids for this year’s chicken contracts at all. The only Ontario companies we have ever had bids from are Pinty’s and DND Poultry. So that means it’s coming from the U.S. or out of province, but mostly the U.S.” (See sidebar for details on 2015 poultry meat contracts. These contracts are for two years, so the next round of bidding will begin January 1st 2017. However, some fully-cooked entre contracts which include poultry meat will be up for bidding in 2016.)
MEALsource staff spend a lot of time making local connections at food shows and trade shows and giving presentations before the RFP process for a contract begins (once the RFP is posted, they can have contact with no one). “Typically a food broker or supplier will call us in, and we’ll present on the contract specifications, the reasons why they exists, the process we follow and more,” Smith says. “We’ve gone to Local Niagara, FoodShare, Greenbelt, anywhere we’re asked to go, we will go. We haven’t had any requests from a poultry company to give a presentation.”
THE WELCOME MAT
In addition to this ongoing work with industry and food groups, MEALsource has changed RFP’s to make the playing field more level. “It started in 2010 that food origin became a concern, a legitimate concern with regard to where tax dollars are going,” Smith explains. “We were invited to participate with the Greenbelt in a project to look at the origin of MEALsource contract food products in five categories: eggs, dairy, sliced whole meats and poultry (‘protein cooked’), cheese, and ‘other refrigerated products.’ We discovered a fair bit was local, but there could be a lot more.” Over the course of the 15-month project, $670 000 of contracts were moved to local companies through finding local vendors and inviting them to participate, equating to a 15 per cent local swing in all categories.
“In 2011, we changed the RFP so that food origin must be stated,” Smith adds, “and so that in the case of a tie, the contract goes to the local vendor. The Broader Public Sector (BPS) Procurement Directive [a provincial directive put in place around that time] also requires all BPS institutions and/or their representatives running a contract process to offer the option of a debrief for bidders, where they can get feedback on the process and find out why their bids failed.” Before and after bids, MEALsource educates as much as it can. “We can’t give anyone an edge, but we can educate,” says Smith. “The international firms are very savvy, with almost an assumption that they will be successful in all their bids. It’s great to see new faces bidding. We would be happy to talk to chicken processors.”
The Ontario Independent Meat Processors (OIMP) does not have an active relationship with MEALsource, says media relations lead Heather Mahachowitz, but supports more Ontario chicken going into Ontario health care institutions. “We communicate opportunities to our members if presented to us, and they will respond directly if interested,” she explains, clarifying that OIMP members are smaller independent operations. “We do not represent companies like Maple Leaf and Lilydale, who may have better resources to respond to RFP’s.” She adds that some MEALsource contract requirements may occlude OIMP members off the bat because of things like volume, delivery or HAACCP requirements. “That said, we would still like to share the opportunity and hopefully foster some connections between our members and MEALsource,” Mahachowitz notes. “[In addition], we would be happy to run/host an information session here at our Guelph office.” Smith says she is certain that MEALsource reps have met OIMP reps at many local food events over the past four years, and that she would be happy to meet with any and all interested vendors.
Mahachowitz asks whether some institutions will only purchase from federally-inspected plants, which puts provincially-licensed plants at a competitive disadvantage. The answer from Smith is no. She says MEALsource has looked into this, and that there are no issues with bids from provincially-inspected plants. “It is a common misperception though,” she notes, “and worth addressing.”
The Association of Ontario Chicken Processors (AOCP) does not get involved in the marketing and sale of chicken, says Mike Tertstra, AOCP Executive Director. “That function is left to each individual processor,” he explains, adding however that “AOCP members purchase approximately 95 per cent of the chicken grown by Ontario farmers and welcome opportunities to provide local chicken to Ontario consumers.” Tertstra did not say whether or not he had been in contact with MEALsource in the past when asked, but stated that “If you have information that I can give to members, I would be happy to do so.”
Overall, there could be many reasons why processors in Ontario aren’t bidding on MEALsource contracts for cooked and raw chicken. It could be that they are focused on other markets, don’t have the resources to look into this sales avenue, or don’t feel it would be worthwhile. Some may not have products that are suitable. If you’re a processor inside or outside Ontario with comments on the topic, please contact us. In addition, if there is a similar agency to MEALsource in another province, please let us know.
Other local food initiatives in Ontario
Turkey Farmers of Ontario (TFO) has worked with some healthcare facilities in the province by promoting the nutritional benefits of turkey and its versatility with a variety of turkey menu features being offered. “In addition to the menu items, says TFO General Manager Janet Schlitt, “past program activities have included posters, consumer contests, on-site staff to discuss the nutritional facts of turkey, and giveaways of promotional items and recipe booklets.”
Egg Farmers of Ontario reaches out to more than 1,100 food service operators annually through personal visits to independent restaurants, meetings at restaurant chain head offices, contact at trade shows and mailings. “EFO generated 85 customized egg promotions in 264 locations last year for food service operators,” says Public Affairs Manager Bill Mitchell. “Over 100 restaurants used our point-of-purchase materials, such as table cards, posters, balloons and buttons. EFO operates an online portal Egg Chef that provides enhancements to operators participating in EFO’s food service program, while reducing production costs of the program. Operators can use the password-protected site to create customizable menus and point-of-sale material to be printed and shipped directly to their restaurants.”
Chicken Famers of Ontario is focused on meeting all Ontario chicken markets, notes CFO Director of Communications and Government Relations Michael Edmonds. “CFO has developed and launched programs to encourage farmers and processors of all sizes to seek out and support currently underserved or emerging markets,” he adds. “CFO’s recently announced ‘Artisanal Chicken’ and ‘Local Niche Market Programs’ will supplement our traditional chicken and Specialty Breeds markets and will help provide additional opportunities for those looking to grow the Ontario market for locally-grown chicken.”