Beware of “Shelflation” in Canada as Grocers Grapple with Pandemic Challenges: Charlebois

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“All food products have an intended shelf life. But challenges along the supply chain will compromise a product’s shelf life at the point of purchase, especially for perishables. If consumers aren’t careful, they can fall victim to “shelflation”, but there are ways to dodge it.” 

By now, you may have heard of a phenomenon called shrinkflation. Many companies will reduce quantities without changing the price by adjusting their packaging strategy. It’s been going on for years. It is the illusion of buying the same amount of product when it has in fact shrunk over time. But when supply chains aren’t working optimally, food products will reach store shelves either less fresh than usual or even a little too ripe, robbing consumers from some needed shelf life at home. This is called “shelflation”.

According to a recent poll by Dalhousie University and the app Caddle, in the past twelve months a total of 41% of Canadians have thrown away milk because it went sour before its due date. Of that group, 38.5% of respondents have done it at least twice, and for 22.8%, three to five times. Throwing away spoiled products before due dates does happen from time to time, but such a high number is quite unusual. Anecdotally, many Canadians of late have noticed some of their produce isn’t as fresh as it used to be, and will rot much sooner. There’s no specific data on this yet, and I suspect many Canadians have not noticed anything different. Snowstorms, labour shortages, procurement problems related to some ingredients, or even packaging issues can affect perishable foods, pandemic or not.

“Shelflation” is indeed quite common, and pandemics aren’t the only way a product’s shelf life can be compromised. Delays due to weather, natural disasters (like what we witnessed in British Columbia last year), labour disputes, massive recalls, or equipment failures can disrupt a supply chain’s efficiency. Cold chains—kept between 2 and 8 degrees—that are responsible for keeping perishables fresh from farm to store, can also be breached for one reason or another. Mechanical breakdowns, hindrances outside the warehouse, or unusually warm temperatures, for example, can shorten the life of or even spoil products before a shipment reaches the store. Perishables need to be maintained at refrigerated temperatures and high relative humidity, conditions that are not routinely met along the supply chain. Food distribution is complex.

But the pandemic has clearly disrupted global food supply chains in more ways than one, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more “shelflation” happening. Asking food companies to operate with fewer staff around will eventually bring forth delays along the way and, of course, more waste. And waste at home will certainly contribute to higher food costs for everyone. The average family of four will spend about $14,000 on food annually, and at least 50% of that budget is dedicated to perishables. Wasting a good portion of that can be costly.

The shelf life of a product is the time between production and the use-by date. The shelf life for highly perishable foods is set rather conservatively to ensure food safety. Expiry dates or best before dates are critical to the fabric of our food safety system, and modern technologies have done wonders to prolong the shelf life of many of our products. In the store, assessing the state of any food with expiry dates is close to impossible due to air-tight packaging. So, naturally, we zone in on dates. At the grocery store, we essentially buy time along with our food. We will constantly go for products where the best before or use-by dates are as late as possible. For produce, we’ll go for products that are appropriately ripe based on when we think the product will be consumed. But consumers can only go by the information provided at the point of purchase without knowing the product’s history before it reached the store.

Food waste is a major challenge in our economy. In Canada, about 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year. The most common causes of perishable food waste at a retailer are overstocking, unpredictable consumer demand, inappropriate quality control, and product handling. Compounded by issues up the food chain, retailers don’t stand much of a chance. So, putting blame solely on the retailer can be misplaced.

Freshness and quality of perishables will obviously vary, depending on where you live and where you shop. Some regions are better served than others. But unlike shrinkflation, “shelflation” can be dodged. Going to the grocery store once a week, or once every two weeks may not be ideal, especially right now with current food supply chain woes. Visiting the grocery store two or three times a week and buying enough for the next two to three days may help you in the long run, and waste less. We just need to approach our grocery shopping a little differently.

Article Author

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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