A Healthy Outlook
By Shaina LuckBusiness Operations Meat &Poultry hogs pork Quebec
Diversity and successful niche products help keep Aliments Breton Canada growing
Vincent Breton knows that he’s up against big players in the pork and agribusiness sector. But ask the president of Aliments Breton Canada and its duBreton brand pork how he feels about the fact that his company remains family owned, and he smiles. “Very proud,” he answers instantly, from his office in Rivere-du-Loup, Que. “Absolutely, it is unusual.”
Napoléon and Adrienne Breton, Vincent Breton’s grandparents, established the Breton farm in 1944. Today, the company’s focus is on expanding the niche market captured by organic, antibiotic-free and humanely raised duBreton pork. “My grandfather started on the farm, and then he started to sell feeding grain to farmers,” says Breton, noting that Napoleon Breton also built a feed meal plant.
In the second generation of the company, Vincent’s father expanded the farm and breeding stock side. He also introduced the packing plant at the end of the 1980s. The processing business continued to expand in the 1990s, and now includes the main processing plant in Rivière-du-Loup, which employs approximately 550 people, as well as farms for breeding stock and feed meal plants.
Over time the company has built relationships with other independent suppliers, and has expanded beyond pork, with partnerships in the poultry and egg business. The diversity of the company allows it more control over the quality of its products, says Breton. As an example, Breton lists how the breeding sub-company might work together with producers. “We can have a uniform breeding material to supply to farmers, and to work with. We can make those changes in the line according to customer requests, not only in the feeding program, but also in the breeding stock. That’s certainly an advantage.”
It’s still possible for pigs to spend their whole lives exclusively under duBreton care – be born on a duBreton farm, eat Aliments Breton feed, and be taken to the duBreton processing plant. “We’re trying to capitalize on that advantage, because we’re integrated,” Breton says. “We can work not only on the finished product, but we can go back to the farm and make some adjustments, or improve efficiency right up to the farm level.” This linked supply chain proved to be an important advantage at the end of the 1990s, when customers started to bring forward more concerns about products that were free of disease and toxins.
The company has gone through more than 15 years of modifying its line to fit customer demand for organic, antibiotic-free and humanely raised pork. This has included outdoor access and more space for animals, a ban on electric batons for animal handling, and food free of antibiotics and animal by-products. “We don’t think that we can compete in terms of size and in terms of economies of scale,” says Breton of the company’s focus. “Without the niche, and without the return on what we do, we knew that it would be a tough road, so we knew that we had to do something.”
Breton sees the niche market as the most important part of his business, and though it comprises only about 30 to 35 per cent of total business, it’s growing all the time. “We’d like to be a 100 per cent niche player – that’s not the case – but that’s what we’d like,” he says, “but that’s a long process, and it’s not an easy gap.”
Matt Lurie, president of the Organic Garage grocery in Oakville, Ont., only carries pork from duBreton. He says that he thinks the product “surpassed anything that was on the market,” noting, “It has that nice pinkish hue. We’ve never had any problems with trim specs, or anything like that, or quality concerns, or taste concerns from any customers.”
Lurie adds that duBreton has invested a lot of effort in customer education and product development. The company has a comprehensive website, uses in-store displays and samples, and is working with a number of chefs on recipes, including Pierre Carrier, one of the founding members of Slow Food Quebec. All this information, Lurie says, is passed on to the customer. “If it’s a certified-organic item, it has all the proper logos, recipes and information on how to use the product. From the customer’s standpoint, when they’re looking in the packaged meat section, all that stuff stands out,” he says. “I think a lot of companies underestimate – especially on the organic/all-natural side, because it’s such a young industry – this idea of what packaging means, and how to communicate things to the customer.”
Paul Comella, buyer at The Garden Basket food markets in Markham, Ont., agrees that the pork is good quality – and the price is reasonable, too. DuBreton raises premiums about 25 per cent higher on natural products over normal products, which Comella says is a good buy in the organic market. “You take a regular pork chop that sells for $5. A 25-per-cent markup on that is $6.25,” he says. “Are people willing to pay an extra $1.25 for a natural product? Yes, most people are.” The attitude, Comella feels, is that it is better to keep prices low and consumers trying all the various products than to charge as much as the organic market will bear. “All along the lines nobody is getting greedy,” he says.
The strategy seems to be working. Annual sales are approximately $225 million from duBreton, and $450 million from Aliments Breton, of which Breton says export sales form roughly 55 to 60 per cent. The company’s main export market is the U.S., but it also does some business in Japan.
Breton sees plenty of work ahead in solidifying the company’s organic and natural niche, but he thinks his grandfather would be proud if he could see the company’s progress. “Having the feeling of producing and being ahead in terms of welfare and in terms of healthy food is something that makes me very proud,” he says.
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