Canadian grain in containers gets stamp of approval
Nov. 13, 2012
by Leo Quigley
Established in 1912 as the Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, the Canadian Grain Commission has survived countless political storms, changes in crop varieties, changes in Canada’s grain handling system, changes in federal legislation and disputes over grain quality.
But some of the most significant changes in its 100-year history may be coming in the next few months. In the last federal budget, the government confirmed its intentions to modernizing key institutions within the grains sector and to updating the Commission’s user fees. The Commission was provided with $44 million over the next two years to continue to operate and update its fees. The Minister of Agriculture has also signaled that the Commission’s enabling legislation, the Canada Grain Act, needs to be modernized.
At present, the Commission’s $80 million budget is provided through government appropriations and user fees, but plans are to increase user fees, reduce government appropriations and modernize the operations of the Commission. But amidst all this change, the Commission is also introducing new programs — including a program for inspecting and certifying the content of shipping containers that has been tested over a four-year period prior to the beginning of this crop year.
Roughly 10% of crop exports generated in Canada move by container. According to Laura Anderson, national manager, Process Verification and Accreditation for the CGC, it has resulted in a growth in business that has challenged the inspection capacity of the Commission in recent years.
“Often, grain is shipped by rail or truck to Vancouver or Montreal and then transloaded at a container transloading facility. And, if the shipper wants a CGC certification or if the buyer of that grain wants a CGC certification, they would then call our regional office at Vancouver or Montreal and say: ‘Can you get somebody to our facility to sample this product?’
“At port locations, most of our staff is at terminal elevators since most of the grain is at terminal elevators. I don’t think there was ever a time when we were unable to provide our services at transloaders, but it created challenges. Container shipments aren’t mandatory, but vessel shipments must be inspected and weighed by the Canadian Grain Commission. Container shipments don’t have that requirement so, from an operational point of view, our first priority is to meet our mandatory service requirements and, secondly, to provide our services where they are requested to secure sales.”
Usually the container inspection process would be carried out at a transloading facility where grain is transferred from a truck or rail car into a container or, sometimes, into bags and then into a container, she said.
“Our staff would go and take those samples and then provide official grade certificates,” Anderson said.
Today, under the new container sampling program, the Commission will provide accreditation to a private firm that will follow established CGC procedures to take the necessary samples, from which the Commission will provide the required certification.
The other alternative, Anderson said, is one in which a transloading facility will be certified by the Commission as having the right equipment, taking samples at the right place and having staff that has been properly trained by the CGC. As well, the Commission will audit the facility to ensure that procedures are being followed.
If all the requirements are met, the Commission will then certify the facility’s sampling program.
The other issue that encouraged the Commission to establish the new container inspection programs was simply the distances involved in sampling grain on the Canadian Prairies.
“It’s a very large geographical area, and we have staff limitations at our service centers,” she said. “We call this ‘source loading.’ An example would be a company that is buying lentils from local farmers, cleaning them and wanting to load them into a container and put that container on a railcar to have it make its way onto a container ship.
“In this case, the same thing would happen. Under the program, they could hire an accredited third party and get an official CGC certification if that’s what their buyer wants or, alternatively, they can have their sampling system certified by the Commission and then they can submit a sample to one of the Prairie service centers to have it graded and a certificate issued.”
International customers pleased
Anderson said one of the unanticipated responses has come from exporters who say official certification of a company’s sampling system by the Canadian Government provides added value and is appreciated by international customers.
“They really like the idea of being able to tell their buyers that they have a CGC-certified sampling system,” she said. “As it was explained to me, a lot of the container trade depends on establishing a strong buyer/seller relationship.”
It’s when a buyer wants to grow their business and penetrate a new market that the certification provides assurance to the new buyer and, in effect, certification becomes a marketing tool.
“The worst thing that can happen,” she said, “is that, when you get your product to the buyer, the quality isn’t what the buyer expected.”
Doug Hyde, program coordinator for Zeghers Seed Inc., Holland, Manitoba, which worked with the Canadian Grain Commission on the pilot project, said the program provides added credibility to Canada’s grain export program where containers are used.
“The Canadian Grain Commission is a bit of a new face to some people,” he said. “It’s well known to the Canadian producer, but less well known on the world stage.”
Zeghers Seed, launched in 1985 by Don Zeghers as a seed cleaning plant, has grown over the years to include the primary processing, conditioning and packaging of crops for the human edible and bird food markets such as yellow flax, brown flax, yellow mustard, brown mustard, canary seed, canola, buckwheat, and peas.
Throughout this growth period, the company has focused on building its food safety and quality assurance programs including certification to CGC and HACCP, under the Commission’s grain safety assurance program.
Hyde said the plant’s biggest export crop at present is flax, and it has also started handling wheat since the federal government’s “Marketing Freedom” legislation became law.
Typically, when product arrives at the plant, it’s sampled, then it’s sampled again after it has been cleaned and processed. Samples are then sent to a private laboratory for testing. Once the lab completes the testing, the results are sent to the grain commission which then certifies the product.
“They’re the ones that say Zeghers Seed has the processes and procedures in place to guarantee a warrant that the product has been sampled properly,” he said.
Hyde is very enthusiastic about the Commission programs. “Consumers are far more discerning than they used to be,” he said. “They’re demanding that their food is what we say it is. They’re also more knowledgeable about food risks and food safety.”
Traceability is also a big part of the program, he said. Not only can a containerized product be traced back to the plant, but in most cases back to the producer where the raw material came from. So far, the piece of ground the product came from cannot be identified, but Hyde said that will come.
The Holland plant is not located on a rail line so all product is shipped as bulk, mini-bulk or in bags and either loaded directly into a container or into a truck and taken to a port to be trans-loaded into a container.
Hyde said the Zeghers Seed plant is a fairly typical plant in Western Canada other than the large facilities operated by major grain companies such Cargill, Richardson or Viterra.
“We’re more of a niche marketing company,” he said. “And our niche is the small customer. It’s not: ‘Here’s what we have, do you want it or not?’ It is: ‘What do you want us to do to this product for you?”
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Leo Quigley writes for a variety of national and international publications specializing in agriculture and transportation. He can be reached at Quigley@dccnet.com.