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Statistics Canada is Changing How it Monitors Food Prices and “It Couldn’t Come at a Worse Time”: Expert

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All eyes are on inflation these days, especially on prices at the grocery store. We all need to spend on the necessities, but food is the one thing we need every single day, and the food choices we make matter a great deal to our budget. To know what is going on with food prices, most of us turn to Statistics Canada for details. But now, without fanfare, we just learned that the federal agency is changing its method in May on how it monitors food prices, and the change could not have happened at a worst time.

The year 2022 will likely be a year for the record books. We have barely ended a quarter of the year, and most of us already know that the cost to feed ourselves will increase dramatically. Traditionally, Statistics Canada would tell us how food prices have progressed over the years in order to have a better sense of how food inflation is affecting us. However, starting in May, that is likely not going to be possible.

Statistics Canada’s undetailed announcement is posted in a note to readers at the very bottom of its monthly Consumer Price Index report. The placement of this note means few people will have noted it, and this is why most of us missed it. Usually, these things take months, sometimes years for agencies like Statistics Canada to plan, but still. 

Over the next few weeks, the database containing the average prices of fifty-two products sold in Canadian grocery stores will be completely removed by Statistics Canada. The federal agency is essentially turning the page on more than 25 years of data to establish in return an expanded list of products whose prices will be collected every month. This new list will likely be more reflective of the modern-day diet.

There is no doubt that this change was needed as the list of products was quite dated. In fact, even if you go back 25 years, the list was quite immaterial for most of us. For example, the only fish on the list was canned salmon. Fish and seafood is a huge industry for Canada, and canned salmon was the only fish that Statistics Canada was monitoring over the last 25 years. The produce category also had just a handful of options, for instance, juice only had one option—orange. While the vegetable protein category was not at all represented. Today, vegetable proteins are consumed by a growing number of Canadians. The new food guide is more than three years old now, and most food items mentioned on the current list are consumed at a much lesser extent by Canadians today.

Nonetheless, according to Statistics Canada’s note, once the new list comes out, we will not be able to go back beyond March 2022 to access the prices of food items, This means that attaining any historical perspective on the new food basket will not be possible. By removing this historical perspective essentially leaves us without the ability to make better sense of how food is impacting our lives over the years. Money spent on food will influence lifestyles, and our socio-economic status and historical points of reference have always been helpful to us all, including other government branches, economists, and researchers. Making Statistic Canada’s change quite disappointing.

It appears the federal agency will not even be creating two food baskets in parallel so data can overlap. So odd. In the United States and elsewhere, typically, federal agencies don’t necessarily erase entire databases, or at least not make them inaccessible to the public. 

Statistics Canada has been criticized over the years for its inaccuracy with inflation, especially with food inflation. This new change makes one wonder about motives and why its announcement was so quiet. In the very subtle announcement, the agency also mentioned that they will be adding more data points which is good news. It needs a larger database no matter what.  

In general, this move is not great news for Canadians. With this change, we can only believe that the federal agency is admitting its reading of food inflation over the last few years was in accurate and its approach needed a complete overhaul. Yet Statistics Canada won’t necessarily admit it. Well, to be fair, it can’t really, given how such an announcement would be received in and outside of the country.

Nevertheless, Canadians will want to know how certain food items are more expensive compared with last year, or even two years ago. For this to occur now, the only suggestion is to keep your weekly flyers somewhere as it will be the only way for you to really know what has happened to food prices in Canada.

Article Author

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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