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Ketchup is not just a condiment

Lee Hart’s saucy commentary on Canada’s recent ketchup brand wars

I do want to tell you about the immeasurable grief and misery our tiny band of adventurers endured last month in setting up the upper camp before our final assault on Everest, but to more important things first — what are your thoughts on the recent ketchup war in Canada? Are you in the French’s or Heinz ketchup camp?

That’s a tough call. I have both brands in my cupboard. I just haven’t put them to the ultimate test.

The ketchup war seems to have attracted a lot of attention as the public takes sides on which company is the most Canadian — although neither of them are. I’m not sure if either of these companies is pro or con the Canadian flag, it might be just about money. Heinz in 2013 closed its Leamington, Ontario plant, putting some 750 people out of work, after more than 100 years of operation and centered its ketchup making in the U.S. At the time they were the bad guys.

But then, as they wrapped up the Leamington operation, they sold that plant to Highbury Canco, a food processing firm. Heinz doesn’t make ketchup in Canada, but the Pittsburg-based food giant does have contracts with the new owners of the plant to supply it with tomato juice and other products. Highbury Canco is still processing Canadian tomatoes and the Heinz contracts account for 350 jobs at the plant.

Now in 2016, along comes New Jersey-based French’s, which has always been known for its mustard, and it introduces a ketchup line. French’s doesn’t make retail ketchup in Canada either. But French’s does have contracts with the same Leamington-based food processor, Highbury Canco. French’s buys tomato paste from Highbury Canco — some of it is shipped to Toronto where French’s makes its bulk restaurant ketchup, and the rest is shipped to Ohio where they make bottled consumer ketchup.

Now with the French’s tomato paste contract Highbury Canco is planning to contract tomato production from 30 more Ontario farms.

So it is really hard to determine if there is a good or bad guy in this whole story. Between the three companies it sounds like Leamington workers and tomato farmers are bouncing back pretty good after the initial Heinz plant closure.

To add to this soap opera of who is making tomato products for who, Canadian-owned Loblaws apparently quietly decided not to carry the French’s ketchup brand on its maple leaf-draped shelves and consumers fired back in protest. So now French’s is back on Superstore, No Frills and other Loblaw chain shelves.

This is more exciting than Downton Abbey. The take-home message here obviously “don’t mess with ketchup.”

The final test of where my ketchup allegiance lies will rest on the day I pop that seal on the French’s ketchup and do a taste test between it and Heinz. I will make sure I have Canadian grown McCain’s french fries that day. I assume McCain’s fries still come from New Brunswick or is it Taber, Alberta. It could be McCains India for all I know. If they happen to be from the U.K. McCains plant that would be okay too. I understand McCains grows potatoes or has their plant on a farm where my grandfather was raised at Whittlesey, England. That would almost be like fries from within the family.

A couple of updates

After a recent column on what I call the newer “spindle” type apple tree, I had an email from George McKenzie of Brownvale in the north Peace River region writing about his cousin Lavern Hawken, who was at one time the largest Massey Harris dealer in Ontario. Hawken also grew apples — he had a 30 acre orchard of dwarf apple trees.

After Hawken retired, he moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, made some money playing the stock market, and kept playing around with apples. At one time he grew as many as 150 different varieties of apples. He managed his own cross breeding program, and made a $1 million donation to an apple orchard in Nanaimo to preserve and protect some of the older heirloom varieties for future breeding programs. He died in 2015 at the age of 92. George has three 70-year-old thumb-size apple trees at his place that still produce great apples. He says everyone should own an apple tree.

And on the recent honey bee column from one specialist saying it might be disease or other environmental factors causing decline in honey bee populations, I had one call from a bee producer in Pierson, Manitoba who said he had been keeping bees for 32 years and the only time he had trouble with bee or hive survival the problem was traced back to pesticides. So that’s what 32 years of experience had to say.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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