Export Knowhow

10 tips for successfully exporting food to Canada

Canada is a natural launchpad into North America for Swiss food manufacturers since most Canadians live within about 160km of the US border. Canada and the United States are not as different as they may seem, at least in the food realm. Product availability is similar on both sides of the border, and when it comes to international cuisine, both countries boast a wide variety of food from all over thanks to robust immigrant populations. In addition, Canadians have high disposable incomes and value high-quality Swiss products.


If you are interested in exporting to Canada, check out the following tips to make sure your food business is set up for success right from the start:

1. Analyze the local market and focus on one or two provinces or urban areas first

Canada’s population may seem homogenous on first sight; however, it is very diverse. For example, Quebecers spend more on food per household even though their disposable income is lower than the national average. Vancouver, on the other hand, has a large Asian population and is very health conscious. In fact, Vancouver was one of the first cities to embrace organic food. However, organic products are becoming increasingly popular in the rest of Canada as well. Furthermore, 2/3 of the Canadian population live in Ontario and Quebec, which may be a reason to focus on these two provinces first. Toronto certainly represents an interesting market since it is Canada’s largest city.

2. Familiarize yourself with the requirements for exporting food to Canada, which may be different from the requirements in the US

For example, a food additive allowed in the US does not necessarily mean that it is will also be allowed in Canada. Certain controlled products, such as dairy or meat also require special consideration. The Canadian dairy sector operates under a supply management system, which plans domestic production and administers pricing, and import controls based on quota. An import permit issued by Global Affairs Canada is required for shipment of cheese to enter Canada. Swiss cheese in Canada must also compete with high quotas allocated to EU cheeses under the CETA agreement. Whereas cheese originating from the EU was allocated a new quota, Swiss cheese is part of Canada’s World Trade Organization (WTO) tariff rate quota for non-EU originating cheese. Find more information on controlled products here.  

3. Make sure you comply with Canadian food regulations maintained by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)

CFIA enforces Health Canada policies and standards governing the safety and nutritional quality of all food sold in Canada and verifies industry compliance with federal acts and regulations. In general, Health Canada does not require a pre-market notification (exceptions are food additives, infant formulas and novel foods). However, the food that is being sold in Canada needs to conform with the requirements set out by Health Canada, such as meeting general food safety requirements and having been manufactured, prepared, stored and labelled under sanitary conditions. The food also needs to comply with Canadian labelling requirements (more info below). In addition, Canadian distributors and foreign manufacturers need to comply with the Safe Food for Canadian Act and the Safe Food for Canadian Regulations.

There are three major components of the regulations:

  1. Licensing: Canadian importers as well as non-resident importers must have a license or apply for one if they do not already have one.
  2. Preventative Control Planning: This document shows how food safety is guaranteed and how companies comply with regulations. This includes all aspects such as manufacturing, hygiene, transport, storage, etc…). Every importer has to develop such a plan, document it, maintain it and implement it.
  3. Recall Traceability: This system includes information on a product, such as origin, shipping, reception dates, as well as contact information throughout the entire production cycle. This plan must be available electronically in Canada (in English and French) and allow for tracing of product(s)

More details can be found here.

4. Make sure that any food additives are on the list of permitted food additives

A list of permitted food additives can be found here. For any food additive that does not appear on one of the lists you must file a food additive submission with Health Canada for assessment.

5. Ensure your labels comply with Canadian regulations

By law, most packaged food must be labelled with a nutritional facts table, an ingredient list, and some packaged food may also have nutrition and health claims, such as low sodium. Mandatory information on consumer-packaged food must be shown in English and French. This checklist provides a good overview of the labelling requirements. If you are planning to sell in Quebec, you also need to take into account Quebec labelling requirements. You will find more information in this brochure published by Quebec’s Office de la langue française (in French only). We recommend getting your labels checked by an expert before entering the Canadian market, to make sure that you are compliant with the regulations.

6. Be careful about the claims you make

When a health claim is made, such as a disease risk reduction claim or a therapeutic claim, this may mean that the food is considered a drug – which may require a pre-market assessment. 

7. Find the right distribution partner

There are few national wholesale distributors in Canada that operate coast to coast. According to IBISWorld, 80% of the market is served by smaller local distributors. For example, a distributor could be focused on Ontario and Quebec only, or only serve the Western provinces. IBISWorld projects that retail chains with their own distribution facilities will increase in number and size over the next few years. However, many smaller specialty stores still work with distributors, as they don’t have the capacity to work directly with retailers. Importers are required to have a license to import food into Canada. When choosing a distribution partner, make sure that your partner has a license in place and complies with the other requirements set out in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations.

8. Leverage your Swiss organic certification, if you have one

Organic products are becoming increasingly popular in Canada and are commanding premium prices. Having an organic certification is certainly an advantage. Canada and Switzerland have an agreement in place that mutually recognizes organic certifications. Organic products must be accompanied by an organic certificate issued by a Swiss Certification/ Inspection Body. Organic products certified in accordance with the Swiss organic system and exported to Canada may bear the Canada Organic Logo. A copy of the logo must be requested from the Swiss certification/inspection bodies responsible for the certification. For more information, please consult this guidance document.

9. Consider private label as a potential entryway into the Canadian market

Private label store brands continue their rise in popularity, reporting five years of consistent growth and retail sales of $14.4 billion (or 18.6%) in 2017. According to Grow Trade’s Joanne Walsh, if supplying to major grocery retailers like Loblaws, Sobeys, or Metro, private label can get your product on the shelf without having to pay listing fees. Since the portfolios of these retailers are already well developed, they need products to fill in the gaps, unique items that are trending or lower cost alternatives.

10. Attend tradeshows to meet with potential business partners

SIAL Canada, which takes place alternately in Toronto or Montreal (the 2021 edition takes place in Toronto from 21-23 September), is the largest national tradeshow in the agri-food sector, where manufacturers, distributors, importers, wholesaler and retailers meet, and present their products and innovations. As for the health food sector, the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) organizes tradeshows in Toronto, Vancouver & Montreal. To attend you need to be a member of the CHFA.

Support from S-GE

Do you have any questions about pre-market notifications, labelling requirements, attending a tradeshow or finding the right distributor? Contact our Consultant for USA & Canada Annina Bosshard for more information.  


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