WFIM Supports New Food Talent

By Birgit Blain

Iana Mologuina is the recipient of the first annual Donna Messer Women in Food Industry Management Scholarship. Nancy Klassen, WFIM Chair, proudly awarded the scholarship saying “Iana has demonstrated academic merit, and a commitment to the food industry through her professional and volunteer experience.” Iana recently graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor in Applied Science in nutrition and food, after obtaining chef training at George Brown College, and plans to continue her studies to become a registered dietitian.

Women in Food Industry Management (WFIM) is dedicated to supporting professionals to become “The Best Women at the Table” by encouraging advancement through networking and professional development.

The WFIM scholarship recognizes the value of female students graduating from studies related to the food industry. It is also a tribute to the late Donna Messer, a founding member of WFIM, who coached scores of women to become better leaders through networking.

Learn about the benefits of WFIM membership at


As a packaged foods consultant specializing in strategy, brand and packaging development, Birgit Blain makes brands more saleable. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at

TRADE SHOWS: 11 Ways to Get the Biggest Bang for Your Buck

by Birgit Blain, President, Birgit Blain & Associates Inc.

Exhibiting at trade or consumer shows may be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s an investment that can significantly benefit your brand.

How to maximize ROI? Having a plan is the first step. But, a plan is only as good as the execution.

#1.  Determine your objectives and prioritize them. Do you want to get orders at the show, launch a new product, raise awareness of your brand, find a distributor, drive traffic to your online store, test the response to new concepts or packaging or build a marketing database?

#2.  Find the right show to achieve those goals, ensuring attendees include the audience you are targeting. Pre-screen shows by attending and talking to exhibitors and industry colleagues.

#3.  Prepare months in advance. Assemble a team. Design a booth with “curb appeal” that draws people in.

#4.  Carefully choose the products you want to showcase, in line with your objectives. If it’s hot food, make sure that it holds well over time and has an enticing aroma.

#5.  It’s a food show, so sampling your product is a must! Even if it’s a consumer show, don’t be stingy with samples. Maximize the exposure for your brand.

When I walk a trade show, I sample dozens of products and only remember those that were exceptionally good or bad. If possible, distribute samples for visitors to take home and enjoy at their leisure.

Cooking demonstrations can attract attention and create mouthwatering aromas. If the product is perishable, understand show requirements and local government food safety regulations. And never handle the food with your bare hands; it’s a turn-off for the food-safety-minded.

#6.  Handing out samples in blank packaging is a total waste of money. Always include branding and contact information. Note that Health Canada labelling regulations apply to sample-size packaging.

#7.  Invite your prospects ahead of time via social media, email, a phone call, whatever. Have a hook or incentive for them to seek out your booth. Offer discounted admission if available. Offer value when they get there.

#8.  Staff the booth with people who know your brand, products and points of difference versus competitors. Give them a 30 second elevator pitch to memorize. Ensure they speak the local language. At SIAL I saw a huge booth with lots of graphics in Chinese, no staff and no visitors. That translates into no sales.

#9.  It’s not rocket science but time and again I have seen exhibitors sitting and waiting for visitors to approach them. If your booth isn’t busy, don’t just sit there; get your product out in the aisle and approach passers-by.

#10.  When there’s a lull in traffic, take some time to visit other exhibitors to scope out competitors and learn what works and what doesn’t.

#11.  Scan attendee badges or collect their business cards. Jot down their products of interest. And most important of all, FOLLOW UP after the show. This is an absolute must. Don’t expect anyone to remember you.

And one last thing, SMILE!

Applying these tips will help to make trade shows a worthwhile investment and raise awareness of your brand. No matter how great your product, no one will buy it unless they know about it. Getting it in their mouths can clinch the sale – provided it delivers on taste, is impactfully packaged and priced right.

As a packaged foods consultant specializing in strategy, brand and packaging development, Birgit Blain makes brands more saleable. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at or

Beware of Gluten-Free Claims

“Gluten free” has spread like wildfire. In hot pursuit of sales, brand owners are jumping on the bandwagon and gluten-free products appear to have taken over the grocery aisles.

Through participation in Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) conferences, I have learned a great deal about the gluten problem and, as a result, am concerned about the reliability of gluten-free claims.

In conversations with food processors and brand owners who make gluten-free claims, it is clear that many do not understand the risks behind manufacturing gluten-free products in compliance with Health Canada regulations.They do not know, what they do not know. And that puts their brand and customers at risk.

The Regulations

In Canada, gluten-free foods are classified as “Foods for Special Dietary Use”. Section B.24.018. of the Food and Drug Regulations states: “It is prohibited to label, package, sell or advertise a food in a manner likely to create an impression that it is a gluten-free food if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction, referred to in the definition “gluten”… ”

They go on to define “gluten” as:

“(a) any gluten protein from the grain of any of the following cereals or the grain of a hybridized strain created from at least one of the following cereals: barley,
triticale, or
wheat, kamut or spelt; or

(b) any modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction, that is derived from the grain of any of the cereals referred to in subparagraphs [above] or the grain of a hybridized strain referred to in paragraph (a).”

Note that oats are included in the definition. I still see brands at trade shows advertising products with oats as “gluten free”. Even when made with “pure uncontaminated oats”, Canada does not permit a gluten-free claim.

Unfortunately, Health Canada’s rules do not specify the threshold for gluten. For that, we must look to the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) who is responsible for enforcement. When making a gluten-free claim on a product, its gluten content must be LESS THAN 20 ppm (parts per million). To help you visualize how minute this is, consider the following example: a typical flat screen TV has 2 million pixels; 20 ppm is equivalent to only 40 pixels. That’s a scary thought for anyone with celiac disease.

The Watch-Out

Contrary to popular belief, just because a food does not inherently contain gluten, like rice for example, does not mean it is gluten free.

The Culprits

#1. Cross-contamination can come from anywhere in the supply chain, from the field to the fork.

Major risk areas include raw ingredients, manufacturing facilities, packaging, transportation and storage. Take a look at our grain handling system. Wheat and other grains are stored in the same elevators and transported in the same trucks, unless they are handled by grain companies certified under the Canadian Identity Preserved Recognition System (CIPRS).

#2. Common ingredients used in food processing, such as additives, seasonings and sauces, can be hidden sources of gluten. Even packaging materials and adhesives may contain gluten.

What are the risks?

  • Subjecting your customers to illness.
  • Your product could be the cause of a costly recall that will spread through the supply chain. CFIA tests products labelled as “gluten free”. Those with 20 or more ppm of gluten could be recalled. That means paying the costs of withdrawing the product from the market, designing and printing new labels, re-labelling, re-distribution, reimbursing retailers, paying penalties and losing sales in the meantime. Is it worth the risk?
  • Negative publicity that will damage the brand’s reputation, erode customer trust and ultimately result in lost sales.

How can “less than 20 ppm” be detected?

There are a number of scientific tests to detect the presence of gluten. But, according to medical doctors speaking at the CCA conference, these tests are not 100% reliable. 

How do consumers know whom to trust?

There is a plethora of “gluten-free” symbols in the market. Many are self-declarations; in other words, the brand owner created the “certification mark”. Some “gluten-free certifications” are based entirely on end product testing. However, that’s not good enough. CFIA states “manufacturers and importers should have good manufacturing/importing practices (GMP/GIP) in place to achieve the lowest levels of gluten possible to avoid cross-contamination.”

The Solution

Making a gluten-free claim can be a minefield in the absence of preventive control measures. The solution is a HACCP-based gluten-free management system for food processing facilities. That’s the principle behind the Canadian Celiac Association’s, Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP),which is based on Canadian regulations. To ensure compliance with GFCP requirements, annual audits from independent third party auditors are required.

Building Trust in Your Brand

The Gluten-Free Certification Program is an investment that goes beyond protecting your brand. Products prominently displaying the GFCP mark stand out on shelf, are differentiated from competitors and build trust in your brand.


Check out these links to learn more about Canadian regulations and the Gluten-Free Certification Program.

Posted by Birgit Blain, president of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc.; food business specialists, helping brand owners break down barriers and position their brands for growth. Her experience includes 17 years in the grocery trade with Loblaw Companies and President’s Choice®. Her extensive knowledge base spans product management, account management and food retailing. Learn more at

How Prep Instructions Can Impact Sales

Have you ever had to assemble furniture with poor instructions? Then you know how frustrating it can be.

The same applies to food. On one occasion I purchased Chinese dumplings, not having tried them before. The packaging was geared to Chinese consumers but the brand was sold in a conventional supermarket. The cooking instructions were vague, so I followed them as closely as possible. I ended up with a gooey mess, nothing to eat and a time-consuming clean-up job! Needless to say, I will never buy that brand again.

I couldn’t be bothered to take the time to complain to the brand owner, so they will never know there’s a problem. If you are a brand owner, what you DON’T know, can hurt your sales.

Developing prep instructions for mixing or cooking is a blend of science and guesswork.

The final product on the plate depends on a number of variables:
  • Whether the product lends itself to the preparation method; for example, pastry does not crisp up well in a microwave.
  • The clarity of the instructions.
  • The customer’s cooking skills and ability to follow instructions. With Canada being a melting pot of cultures and language abilities, consider how the instructions might be interpreted.
  • Cooking appliances; not all makes and models are created equal. Add age of the appliance to that and performance varies greatly, especially for microwave ovens. Consequently the finished product may be disappointing or even disastrous – not reflecting your brand in a positive light.
How can brand owners ensure their prep instructions measure up?

1.  Developing prep instructions is part of our product development and quality assurance process. If there are several methods for preparing the product (e.g. conventional oven or microwave, stove top or boil-in-bag), choose the one that yields the best results. To allow for variations in appliances, some brands specify a range for cooking times and describe the perfect end result. And don’t forget about minimum internal temperature requirements for food safety.

2.  Testing is paramount; in the test kitchen, using different brands, models and ages of appliances. Also test instructions with your target customers, people with a range of cooking skills and those who are unfamiliar with the product. Employees, friends and family are not the best source for feedback.

3.  Writing easy-to-follow prep instructions is a skill and collaboration between the product developer, quality assurance and the copywriter. This is part of our process for writing the label copy.

You can have the best tasting product in the world but, when the finished dish is not up to scratch, your customer will think twice before buying your brand again.

Posted by Birgit Blain, President of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc., packaged food specialists providing pain relief for food brands.

How Traceability can Increase Profitability

Photo-Bar CodeHighly publicized food borne illness outbreaks and recalls have weakened consumer trust in the safety of our food system. This has given rise to Canadian and U.S. government initiatives focusing on food safety and traceability.

Food processors and brand owners undoubtedly view this as unnecessary added cost and red tape, further impacting their efficiency and ability to compete.

How can food processors turn this into a positive, value-added proposition?

Judith Kirkness, author of The Traceability Factor, a comprehensive guide for food processors, shared her insights at the 10th Annual North American Food Safety Summit.

For traceability purposes, food processors must collect and track information related to:

  • Receiving and storage of raw materials
  • Manufacturing and storing interim and finished goods
  • Shipping finished goods

The data sits in individual silos. Connecting those silos of information enables food processors to identify and correct inefficiencies. That’s what traceability technology can do for you.


By automating the traceability process businesses can:

1.  Respond quickly to recalls. Bad news spreads like wildfire through social media. In the event of a recall, traceability information is at your fingertips, saving precious time and reducing stress.

2.  Calculate accurate costing for raw ingredients, batches, work in progress and finished goods. Knowing the true product cost is critical for improving profitability.

3.  Monitor yield by comparing inputs and outputs to reduce waste.

4.  Reduce errors and manual data entry.

5.  Improve inventory management.

6.  Report profitability by product and customer, also factoring in marketing program costs.


Admittedly, it’s a big investment, but it can pay for itself through:

  • increased manufacturing efficiency
  • labour productivity enhancement
  • reduced waste
  • improved product quality
  • reduced risks
An added bonus is the protection of your brand and building customer trust.

There are a variety of hardware and software solutions on the market, each with their own capabilities and features. The technology package is customized for the food processor’s unique requirements. Ask service providers for a free assessment, to compare apples to oranges and find the right solution for your business.


Government funding programs like Growing Forward 2 from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) can dramatically offset the technology cost.


Where to start? These publications will help you to get informed and learn what questions to ask.

The Traceability Factor

Traceability for Dummies (free download)

Traceability is not only a legal obligation for food processors and brand owners, it’s an investment that will strengthen your business and your brand.


P.S.  Judith Kirkness is offering Canadian food processors a complimentary copy of her book The Traceability Factor. It’s an excellent resource and must-read for any food business. Call Minotaur Software 905-458-7575 or 1-800-668-1284. Ask for Judith and mention Birgit Blain’s blog. There is absolutely no obligation. Offer is available while supplies last.


Posted by Birgit Blain, president of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc.; food business specialists, helping brand owners break down barriers and position their brands for growth. Her experience includes 17 years in the grocery trade with Loblaw Companies and President’s Choice®. Her extensive knowledge base spans product management, account management and food retailing.




Financing a business is a challenge for any company, but especially for small food businesses. The pressure is on to comply with North America’s new food safety regulations, expected to take effect in 2015. Health Canada is implementing the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) and the FDA in the U.S. is drafting the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Canadian food businesses exporting to the U.S. will have to comply with both.

How can a small Canadian business afford the cost of implementing the required food safety measures? Read on.

Is it worth it? It’s all in the way you look at it. Yes, food safety is a cost of doing business but, it’s also a trust-builder. In this age of social media, consumer expectations of transparency and authenticity and growing concern for the safety of their food, can there be a stronger message than “our brand invests in food safety”?


At this month’s North American Food Safety Summit in Toronto, Randy Josephs, VP of Operations at Kisko Products, described how his family’s business overcame challenges to grow into a medium-size business. They were able to implement technology within a budget, keep up with regulations, provide ongoing employee training and find funding through Canadian government programs.


Government programs will not fully fund your business. Additional capital is required. For Kisko, the benefits outweighed the costs. Over a 5 year period improvements included:

  • Direct labour
  • Machine usage, changeover, throughput and capacity
  • Decreased production waste and garbage cost
  • Market development
  • Export expansion capabilities


Canadian government funding programs are typically focused on innovation, market growth and export development. Each program has its own eligibility requirements and window of availability, and may not be an option for your business. Randy shared some programs that helped grow his business. There are also other programs and grants available, including tax incentives like SR&ED.

  • Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME)
  • Yves Landry AIME Global Initiative
  • Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP)
  • Growing Forward 2
  • Local Food Fund

But, who has the time for research and filling out applications? Where do you start? Mentor Works helped Kisko navigate through the government maze, identifying and successfully applying for the appropriate funding opportunities. According to Randy, Mentor Works builds their business on referrals. What sets them apart is that they provide the necessary knowledge and tools to enable their clients to submit future successful applications on their own. I asked Randy if he’s related to anyone in the company. He assured me he’s just a happy customer. To learn more, Mentor Works provides webinars and workshops.

So don’t despair. Check out what the Canadian government has to offer.

Posted by Birgit Blain, President of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc., packaged food specialists providing pain relief for food

Cronut Burger Lessons

Photo-cronut burgerToronto’s August 2013 food-borne illness outbreak attributed to the “Cronut Burger” is now a distant memory for most of us. But perhaps not, for those unlucky souls who were sick and hospitalized. One consolation is that more people weren’t affected and no one died.

This event is a learning opportunity for packaged food brands and food service businesses, at someone else’s expense.


As we have seen from recalls and other food-borne illness outbreaks (2011 Jensen Farms cantaloupes, 2012 XL Foods, and so on), consequences include financial penalties, bankruptcy, legal action, criminal charges and economic impact that can spread far beyond the company at the source, with a ripple effect through an entire industry.

The more I learn about food safety, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. That’s why I attended the 10th Annual North American Summit on Food Safety. Here are some key learnings from a presentation about the “Cronut Burger” investigation by Toronto Public Health Inspector Jim Chan, (now retired) who had a major role in managing the outbreak.

  1. Food safety is everyone’s responsibility, from upper management to the most junior employees. Developing a culture of food safety throughout the company can be a source of pride for employees and will build customer trust in your brand. What a great competitive advantage!
  2. Resist the temptation to put financial considerations before food safety. It can kill your customers and your business. Consider the costs of a recall and PR nightmare.
  3. Education and training is needed, from top to bottom, to raise awareness of the hazards and how to control them.
  4. Ensure food safety is part of the product development process.
  5. A Quality Assurance or Food Safety Manager who does their job well, is the “hero” helping you make a better product, not the “bad guy” costing your business money.
  6. Having and strictly following a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan is a must. You owe it to your customers. Certification under GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) schemes such as BRC, SQF, etc. is even better. Most major food retailers require their suppliers to be GFSI certified.
  7. When sourcing ingredients, don’t automatically trust your suppliers. Due diligence is required. Inspect their facility, if possible, and insist on proof of quality and food safety (certificates of analysis, product and ingredient specifications, audit reports, etc.).
  8. Your accountability doesn’t stop when your product goes out the door. Following a traceability program will be required under Health Canada’s Safe Food For Canadian’s Act (SFCA) and the American Food & Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

When it comes to food safety, validating your assumptions can be an eye-opener. Even an expert doesn’t know everything.

One final thought… Celebrate food safety. It’s part of a strong and competitive brand.

Posted by Birgit Blain, President of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc., packaged food specialists providing pain relief for food brands.


Innovation is the lifeblood of a brand. Packaged food brands need to innovative to stay relevant in today’s rapidly changing market. Relying solely on “regular flavour” offerings is not enough, although they typically represent about 80% of a brand’s sales.

For inspiration, look to the restaurant industry, the birthplace of many trends. Here’s a sampling of innovations and trends from the 2014 CRFA show, Canada’s biggest event for the restaurant industry.

IMG_1307MAPLE in beverages and cheese…

KiKi Maple Sweet Water® beverages, made in Canada with our own maple sap, are a refreshing source of 80+ micronutrients, prebiotics and antioxidants. Just slightly sweet, they’re available in maple and 3 maple/fruit blends.

Maple Milk from Natrel® gives kids a tasty reason to drink milk.

IMG_1297TRUFFLES (not the chocolate variety)

Taste for Luxury imports Truffle Pearls from Italy – a gourmet delight with the taste of truffles and texture of caviar. Their NoH2O finely sliced Dehydrated Alba White Truffles awaken when added to warm dishes, releasing the true truffle flavour.


A truly Canadian innovation from Niagara-on-the-Lake, with the sweetness and flavour of ice wine and versatility of maple syrup.


More flavourful than Canada Dry, Powell & Mahoney’s Ginger Drink & Mixer makes a refreshing and invigorating beverage with or without alcohol.

Real ginger enlivens Iroquois Cranberry Growers’ Cranberry Juice with Ginger.


Backerhaus Veit’s authentic Pretzel Buns, made with traditional pretzel dough, stand up to saucy meat fillings. And they’re great with beer. I see hearty German comfort food on the trend horizon.


InHarvest blends artisan grains like farro and amaranth with coloured rices and legumes, boosting nutrition, colour and texture to elevate side dishes and mains to a whole new level.


Healthy, vibrant, colourful and versatile, beets are popping up on menus.


Cooking under vacuum locks in the flavour, colour and nutrients of food. It’s the ideal concept for today’s time-starved consumers. If Canadians could just get over the negative image of “boil-in-bag”. For food service operators, Nobly™ steamed sous vide vegetables, legumes, fruit and grains are fully cooked, taking the time, labour and waste out of prepping.


Taking the snack category up a notch, kale is the new potato chip. Loaded with nutrients it adds colour, texture and a unique taste to soups, salads, side dishes or mains. Sadly, consumers are intimidated by the prep work required for fresh kale. The solution, skillet-ready COOKIN’ GREENS™, take the work out of prepping and cooking.


When Starbucks gets in the game with Teavana tea bars, you know it’s a trend with legs. Tea is bursting out of the confines of black, green and herbal. Premium artisan tea brand “Tea Squared” offers over 100 blends of fragrant, sensual and stimulating loose leaf tea. So, sip a cup of artisan tea and envision how the flavour can transcend to other food categories.

Numi® Organic Tea introduced savory teas blended with vegetables, wild herbs, decaf tea and aromatic spices.

MATCHA (not macho)

Convenient pre-mixed Matcha green tea powder invigorates beverages and smoothies. Cooking grade Matcha has a stronger flavour that shines through in desserts and baked goods.

IMG_1305And just for fun, Piller’s® makes HEART-SHAPED SALAMI, a novel Valentine’s gift for those who don’t like chocolate or flowers. The sky’s the limit!

Posted by Birgit Blain, President of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc., packaged food specialists providing pain relief for food brands.