Smaller Packages at Grocery Stores in Canada Amid ‘Shrinkflation’ Could Trigger Taxes at the Checkout [Op-Ed]

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“Shrinkflation has bothered many people for a very long time. The taxman has given another reason why we should hate shrinkflation even more.”

As if shrinkflation wasn’t painful enough for all of us, looks like the taxman is making shrinking packages even more painful for our wallets. Shrinkflation is when a food manufacturer reduces quantities but continues to sell the product at the same price. We have seen this happening pretty much everywhere in all sections of the grocery store. It’s even now happening in the fresh section, with strawberries and blueberries.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has provisions that make some smaller products taxable that weren’t in their larger forms. This policy is not new, it actually dates back to 2007, when the GST/HST Memorandum was revised. Some articles of the memo even existed back in 1997. But what is new is the number of products now subject to this Tax Act due to reduced quantities. An increasing number of products, hundreds, are now taxed that weren’t before.

The Act’s policy section Schedule VI, Part III clearly defines a snack and the meaning of single serving. For instance, the threshold for ice cream is 500 millilitres. Anything below that means the product is taxable as it is considered a snack, not as part of basic groceries. Cakes, muffins, pies, pastries, tarts, cookies, doughnuts, brownies, croissants with sweetened filling or coating, or similar products are all taxable if quantities are reduced below thresholds specified by the Act.

If food items are pre-packaged for sale to consumers in quantities of less than six items, these products are taxed. Grocery shopping is complicated enough, but now, due to shrinkflation, consumers have to worry about how much more they need to pay. Depending on the province you live in, it could add 5% to 13% more to the price tag of some products you’re buying. And chances are, you have likely never noticed.

Consumers are basically being double slammed by both the industry and the taxman himself, and in most cases, without knowing. By “skrinflating” a product, consumers get less and are taxed more. Just great.

CRA’s GST/HST Memorandum 4.3 on taxable food products includes in it 156 articles. Unless you’re a tax expert, few will ever understand or even know how to interpret the Act and appreciate how it will apply to the 18,000 to 25,000 different food products you can find in a regular grocery store. It is practically impossible to know how many items were taxed in compliance with the law.

A recent survey conducted by Dalhousie University, in partnership with Caddle, shows that 67 percent of Canadians have found at least one mistake on their grocery receipt in the last year. That is an astonishing number. And according to the same survey, only 9.2 percent have seen tax on a food item that shouldn’t have been taxed. The true number is likely higher, much higher. One can only assume that many consumers wouldn’t have been able to pick up on mistakes related to taxable items. The law is incredibly confusing for everyone. Even some grocers have admitted to having made mistakes and having applied taxes on food products when they shouldn’t have. 

With shrinkflation, many products which are now taxed find their way into lunchboxes for school children. Many are penalized by this. Most of these products were designed to bring convenience to our lives. Paying more taxes is certainly what most consumers would consider convenient.

In essence, food at the grocery store should never be taxed, unless it is serviced to be consumed right away. Or at the very minimum, the Act should be changed to exempt smaller single servings and packages that include less than six items. 

Skrinkflation has been around for well over 30 years, perhaps even longer. The strategy has angered many consumers for obvious reasons. With food inflation being at a 40 year-high these past few months, most consumers are blaming industry for their ills at the grocery store. Yet many tend to forget how our own fiscal regime also makes our food more expensive. The carbon tax is potentially impacting food affordability in our country. On April 1, the carbon tax will rise to $65 a metric ton and will reach $170 a metric ton by 2030. We need to know how the policy will influence our food bill over time.

However, the carbon tax is hidden and impacts the supply chain. A sales tax is very real for all of us. Seeing more taxes added to our food bill as we exit the grocery store adds insult to injury. This is just simply unacceptable.

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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