In a dining room above a giant supermarket, several dozen South Africans are sipping wine and sampling some of Canada's tastiest food exports: smoked salmon, maple syrup, wild rice and more. "There's maple syrup in all the desserts," a trade commissioner tells them as they mingle.
It's the first time the local Canadian trade office has held a "Canadian food night" in Johannesburg, and it signals a growing effort to diversify Canada's food exports away from its traditional markets in the United States and Asia.
The export campaign is producing some successes – including a steady rise in Canadian meat exports to South Africa – but it also faces a new obstacle. After years of grumbling, the South African government is threatening to file a complaint against Canadian pork exports at the World Trade Organization, sources say.
South Africa, a growing middle-income country of about 50 million people, has become the fifth-largest non-Asian market for Canadian pork. Canada supplies about half the high-end pork products – such as tenderloin, ribs and medallions –sold in South African grocery stores, officials say.
Canada exported about $41-million in meat products – primarily pork and chicken – to South Africa last year, up from $32-million in 2007. This represents about 6 per cent of Canada's total exports to South Africa, which reached $683-million last year, according to federal statistics.
Canada also exports substantial amounts of wheat and lentils to South Africa, while a major Canadian company, McCain Foods Ltd., dominates the frozen-food market in South Africa.
But the Canadian success has triggered a backlash from South African pork producers. Although no formal complaint has been lodged, the producers apparently allege that leftover pieces of Canadian pork at South African abattoirs are finding their way into the food chain of local farms, causing outbreaks of animal diseases.
The complaints have been circulating for years. In 2010, the issue was raised during a visit to South Africa by former international trade minister Peter Van Loan. "On behalf of Canadian pork producers, Minister Van Loan worked to find ways to keep South African markets open to Canadian pork," the minister's office said in a 2010 statement. He discussed the problem during a meeting with the South African agriculture minister, and they agreed to have "additional consultations" to find a solution.
Instead of a formal WTO complaint against Canada, it is possible that South Africa will impose new health restrictions on pork imports, which would disproportionally affect Canadian exporters, sources say.
Canada is the world's third-biggest exporter of pork, with more than $2-billion in total annual sales. One of its biggest selling points is its claim of a healthy and clean environment for its hog industry, including cold winters that deter animal diseases.
But while Canada might be successful in selling pork here, it will need to fight hard to break into other sectors of the South African food industry. "South Africa is the bread basket for the region, and it has a very strong and vibrant agriculture sector," said David Hornsby, a Canadian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who specializes in agricultural trade issues.
He argues that Canada's food exports to South Africa are relatively small, compared to the size of the market here. "Canada really needs to focus on niche products," he said.