Some small businesses and sweet-treat makers across Western Canada say they are having trouble getting enough of one key ingredient right before the holiday season: sugar.
But does that mean there could be a shortage heading into the busy holiday baking season?
Higher costs and a strike at one of the country’s few sugar processing facilities are leading to reports of supply issues of brown sugar and some packaged white sugars at grocery stores, bakeries and other shops.
Labour actions at Vancouver facility Rogers Sugar Refinery began on Sept. 28, with 138 workers walking off the job.
The strike’s effects are being felt across the western provinces, as businesses in Calgary and Regina struggle to stock shelves. However, others say bakers have nothing to worry about as they prepare their shopping lists this season.
What are businesses experiencing?
Sarah Foy, candy maker and owner of Volio’s Confections in Calgary, said she has been buying all the sugar she can get for weeks.
“I’ve been stocking up ever since my father-in-law called and said, ‘Do you know there’s a sugar shortage?’ And then another friend of mine who owns a business also called to warn me,” Foy told The Canadian Press.
“So we’re trying to be prepared.”
Tasha Henderson, manager at Sinfully Sweet Cathedral Bakery in Regina, said while she thinks she has enough sugar right now to make it through the holiday season, the strike at the Rogers refinery has already doubled her wholesale costs.
“We used to pay $24 to $28 a bag, and now we’re paying about $50 to $62 a bag,” Henderson told The Canadian Press, adding she expects the bakery will need to increase its own prices in the new year as a result.
“For now, we’re just trying to hold tight for the Christmas season, because we’ve already done all of our promotional documents for our holiday pricing.”
However, the strike so far appears unlikely to cause a full sugar shortage, even if there are some “localized” impacts.
Rogers Sugar chief financial officer JS Couillard told Global News in a statement Friday that its Vancouver refinery continues to operate, but at a reduced level, and the company is using its other facilities to support its customers in Western Canada.
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Couillard also acknowledged the supply issues resulting from the strike, particularly with brown sugar and some white packaged sugar, saying they are aware of the issue.
“We are working hard to support our customers throughout the labour disruption,” Couillard said.
“We acknowledge that this has resulted in localized impacts on supply in Western Canada of some sugar products, particularly brown sugar and some packaged white sugar. When it comes to the bulk and liquid sugars that make up most of roughly 90% of the market in Canada, there is ample supply.”
Martin Barnett, the executive director of the Baking Association of Canada, told Global News he doesn’t “think anybody is affected at this time.”
“In our investigation, we haven’t actually seen a shortage of sugar on the shelves or through our distributors. (Bakers) are more affected by the possibility of a shortage in a few weeks’ time, especially a big industrial baker,” he said.
Barnett echoed Rogers’ statement, saying Eastern Canada facilities are providing sugar for the Western Canada market during the labour dispute and largely filling the supply gap.
“There is sugar. I can’t tell you whether it’s consumer sugar or industrial sugar, but there is sugar being produced in Western Canada right now,” he said.
Barnett said there is no need for bakers to stock up on sugar more than they normally do ahead of the holidays this year.
“I think everyone is going to be able to do their holiday baking without interruption,” he said.
Barnett also acknowledged the rising global demand of sugar in recent years, causing prices to spike. While he said he isn’t in a position to explain why there’s more demand, changes in sugar prices tend to be “cyclical.”
“Demand is outstripping supply right now, so that puts pressure on the market,” he said.
What happens next?
According to the Canadian Sugar Institute, Canada produces approximately 1.2 million tonnes of refined sugar annually — around 94 per cent of which is refined from raw cane sugar imported in bulk to three refining operations in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
The Toronto refinery is owned by Redpath Sugar, while the Vancouver and Montreal refineries are operated by Rogers Sugar Inc., which markets its products under the brand names Rogers and Lantic.
The reported sugar supply issues being experienced in Western Canada stem from the Vancouver refinery, where 138 striking workers have been off the job since Sept. 28.
Adrian Soldera, president of Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 8, said the union is at odds with Rogers Sugar over issues like wages, benefits and the company’s proposal to increase refinery operations to 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Soldera told Global News on Nov. 5 that the refinery had kept continuous shifting in their proposal during discussions with the union that day, including mandatory 12-hour shifts and a 168-hour work week.
“We had asked the membership what they wanted out of this collective agreement and continuous shifting was not in there, never mind the 12-hour work day because that certainly wasn’t presented to us,” he said.
“With work-life balance, spending more time at work is not good balance for home.”
The union has sent its own proposal to the company, which includes hiring more workers and updating equipment at the refinery to increase production, Soldera said.
“They want to have this 12-hour shifting, and if they get that, then they will hire more people. And then at that point there they will upgrade the equipment,” he explained.
The union is still waiting to hear back on its proposal, Soldera said, though it doesn’t seem like continuous shifting will come off the table.
“We’re just trying to do everything that we can to get back to the table and get a fair collective agreement,” he said.
Soldera said the Vancouver refinery is the only facility in Canada that makes brown and yellow sugars, making it a big business that could wind up with long-term consequences from the strike.
For example, Coca-Cola Vancouver is no longer purchasing sugar from the province or Alberta while the labour dispute is happening, he said.
Soldera said he’s aware the strike is impacting customers, just as the holidays near and demand from home bakers spikes.
“We want to be back at work and we’ve made that very clear to them…. Honestly, I don’t know where we go from here. We’ll have to wait to hear from (the refinery),” he said.
Soldera told The Canadian Press that even if union members go back to work tomorrow, shelves won’t be fully stocked with sugar until the first or second week of December.
Couillard told Global News in its statement on behalf of Rogers Sugar that the refinery has had to make changes to keep up with demand.
“The demand for sugar in Canada is growing as our population increases and as food manufacturers who employ thousands of Canadians expand their businesses. That’s why we are building capacity in Eastern Canada and seeking to run the Vancouver plant on the same schedule that successful manufacturers all around the world employ,” he said.
Couillard said the refinery is “fully committed” to reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with its unionized staff.
“This means negotiating an agreement that provides fair wages, benefits and working conditions, including an adjustment to work schedules for roughly one quarter of the Vancouver workforce.
“It also means negotiating an agreement that allows us to serve customer needs, meet growing demand, and position the Vancouver refinery for long-term health and future success for the benefit of all.”
— with files from The Canadian Press.